Published July 11, 2013
Megan Whalen was slightly apprehensive about starting an internship at engineering firm Cobham this summer.
Cobham, after all, designs and builds some of the world’s most sophisticated pressurized gas systems for NASA, Boeing, the U.S. Navy and others.
Whalen, a UB mechanical engineering student, found comfort in her first assignment: using SolidWorks, a computer-aided design program, to test a nitrogen inverting system designed for unmanned aerial vehicles.
“I’m familiar with that program because I took a class on it at UB,” says Whalen, who will return to UB this fall for her senior year.
Like many of Buffalo Niagara’s leading engineering firms, Cobham has strong ties to UB, particularly to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. UB engineers have been working at Cobham since the company formed as Carleton Aviation in East Aurora during the 1950s.
Fueled by the success of making oxygen regulators for Boeing 707s, the company expanded in the 1960s by providing a similar product for Project Mercury, NASA’s first human spaceflight program.
“Every astronaut since John Glenn has breathed in outer space using our equipment,” says Jeff Ehret, Cobham senior business development manager, gesturing to a case containing the regulator used by the famous astronaut.
The company also developed pressure suit controllers that military members use to keep cool when encountering dangerous heat; oxygen valves for submarines; and components for NASA’s space shuttle program.
In 1987, British manufacturing company Cobham bought Carleton. Officially called Cobham Mission Systems Division, it operates in a 100,000-square-foot facility in Orchard Park that employs roughly 275. It continues to work with many of the same government agencies and private industry that it did as Carleton Aviation.
Whalen worked on the nitrogen inverting system at Cobham in early June. She used SolidWorks, the computer program, to show how a handle that clamps down part of the system is supposed to react to stress. She refined the handle’s design to make it stronger.
The work is a minor but important task on just one of the dozens of life support projects that Cobham engineers are engaged in, Ehret says.
Whalen, who grew up loving art class, says she was drawn to mechanical engineering because it has many different applications.
That’s true, agrees Dean Millar, director of UB’s Engineering Career Institute. He notes that Whalen is among dozens of engineering students who have interned this past academic year with one of Buffalo Niagara’s leading firms. The companies make everything from medical devices and aerospace components to working with high-pressure gas systems and advanced materials.
Cobham has offered paid internships to UB students since 2006, according to Tama Gresco-Sauers, Cobham’s human resources director in Orchard Park. Additionally, the company annually provides one student—in this case Whalen—with a $2,000 scholarship.
The internship program, Gresco-Sauers says, has been remarkably successful.
“Most do so well that we often hire them to work part time in the fall during the school year. And some we’ve hired full time upon graduation,” she adds.
That’s something Whalen, who has a few more weeks left in her internship, is interested in.
“I love it here,” she says before turning her attention back to the nitrogen inverting system.