PhD Aerospace Engineering. Class of 2008. Air Bender, Speed demon, Record Breaker.
What brought you to Swansea University?
I grew up in Swansea, but it wasn’t until I left to study Aeronautical Engineering in Cambridge that I realised what an amazing part of the world it is. During my four years in Cambridge I was determined to find a way to return to Swansea and establish a career here in South Wales after I graduated. I discovered that there was a world-leading research group in engineering computational modelling at Swansea’s Engineering department, so in my final year of studying at Cambridge I started exploring options for postgraduate studies at Swansea. This is when I met Prof. Ken Morgan and Prof. Oubay Hassan who came to be my PhD supervisors.
What are your best memories from your time as a student here?
At the time I was studying there was a great cohort of PhD students, doing research in similar areas. Some of the friendships that I made during my four years as a student were really important. A few of us were quite disciplined with early starts and we would aim to be in the office for 7am every morning in the summer and then finish work mid-afternoon and head to the beach to surf. I really miss those days!
"It seemed like too good an opportunity to turn down!"
How did you get involved with the Bloodhound project?
Around the time I was writing up my PhD thesis, which was based on the development of a novel computational modelling method for solving the Boltzmann equation for molecular gas dynamics, I had started thinking about what to do next. My plan had been to go into teaching (I come from a family of teachers and that seemed like an obvious path for me) but I got side-tracked by an offer to work for three years leading the computational fluid dynamics modelling of the Bloodhound Land Speed Record car (the University had already developed a relationship with Richard Noble and the team from their work on the Thrust SSC Land Speed Record attempt). It seemed like too good an opportunity to turn down!
What is your role with the project?
Since 2008 I have been the aerodynamic modelling lead for the design of the Bloodhound LSR car. I have carried out this role whilst based at Swansea University, initially as a Research Assistant and more recently as a member of academic staff within the Faculty of Science and Engineering. I juggle my ‘day job’ responsibilities at the University (which at the moment involves helping deliver the Aerospace Engineering undergraduate degree programme) with acting as a consultant to the Bloodhound project.
What’s it like being part of a team trying to beat the land speed record?
Hard work, and an emotional rollercoaster! Being the sole person responsible for all of the Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) analysis for a unique and complex vehicle like Bloodhound has been a mammoth body of work over the past decade (in a commercial project of this scale in industry you might expect a large team of engineers to be doing this) and, of course, if you’ve been following the project you will be aware that it has had lots of ups and downs, mainly due to finances. There are been several instances where the project ran out of money and it looked like everything would come to an end. That has been really tough.
Have you sat in the cockpit? What was that like?
Yes, I was in fact the first person to sit in the cockpit after the carbon fibre ‘shell’ was delivered to the Bloodhound technical centre. I haven’t had a chance to sit in the cockpit since it has been kitted out with all of the instrumentation, but it is very impressive – part spaceship / part formula one car!
Do you get nervous every time the car (can we call it a car?) does a run?
Yes, Bloodhound is definitely a car. It has four wheels and a driver who steers it by turning the two front wheels. We started high speed testing (250 mph+) in South Africa at the tail end of 2019 and it was amazing to finally see the car hurtling across the desert and broadly behaving exactly as we predicted it would. But I must confess that there was a little voice in the back of my head asking, ‘have we definitely got this right?’ every time I watched it run.
Have the tests on Bloodhound revealed anything new about aerodynamics or other aspects of engineering at high speeds?
The tests so far have confirmed that our CFD modelling approach has worked well (at least up to 628 mph, or Mach 0.82) – that is a great confidence boost that the car will be safe at higher speeds. We’ve been learning lots about how best to apply CFD modelling in the context of a complex design cycle and some of those lessons are now getting exploited in other projects with ‘more conventional’ organisations like Airbus and Reaction Engines (who are developing the Skylon spaceplane).
Will it beat the land speed record?
Yes! If the project continues to be financed. We are now extremely confident that the car is capable of speeds in excess of the current record (763 mph)…. The big question will be how far we can push it beyond this (before the money runs out!)
What advice would you have for anyone considering studying at Swansea?
Swansea is an amazing University in a beautiful location. My experience (on both the student and staff side) has been that people here are extremely friendly and there is a real ‘community’ feel. The opportunity to be academically challenged whilst also having a great quality of life is second to none in my opinion!