Daily Iowan: UI Professor Develops Flight Training Software

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

By Zachary Pound
Daily Iowan

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University of Iowa Associate Professor Tom “Mach” Schnell is on a mission to help evolve the human race. With the pilot being the least perfect part in flying, he is trying the bridge the gap between man and aircraft.

“The human race is still a bunch of cavemen when compared to technology, which has rapidly progressed,” he said.

That’s the right frame of mind for a guy who’s last name means “quick” in German.

Schnell, 45, was born in Bern, Switzerland, and he flew gliders there before coming to the U.S. in 1992, where he earned a master’s in engineering from the University of Ohio in 1994.

“As a little child, I knew what I wanted to do when I got older,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be an engineer, and I knew that I wanted to fly.”

An associate professor in mechanical and industrial engineering, Schnell became the director of Operator Performance Laboratory in the Center for Computer-Aided Design, located at the Iowa City Municipal Airport.

The chief pilot at the Operator Performance Laboratory has been flying since he got his license in 1996. His job is to use real planes to create simulations for future software.

“We’re creating this, what you would call ‘gaming’ technology,” Schnell said. “The software that we make makes training in a flight simulator that much more effective.”

Carl Richey has worked with Schnell for nine years at the laboratory.

“He is very driven and loves to fly,” Richey said. “He is hands-on in everything that is going on here.”

In the air, Schell is the pilot in command, ready for any possible mishap, with his copilot on guard.
Schnell is the pilot in the front seat, dealing with takeoffs and landing. He and his copilots run the flying tests south of Iowa City so high up on the atmosphere that the roar of the jet engines can’t be heard on the ground.

However, it’s not all just fun and games flying around in the sky.

“For every hour of flight time, there are 20 hours of work done on the computers located in the hanger,” Schnell said.

Nick Anderson, a electric-engineering sophomore at the UI, works with Schnell and others at the Operator Performance Laboratory to integrate new training technology for a Boeing 777.

“Professor Schnell is a great guy,” Anderson said. “He is specific in what he tells you to do but gives you the freedom to go about and complete the task on your own.”

Schnell helped create the software used in the Dynon Skyview. The 10- to 7-inch display shows the pilot all they need to know about the area surrounding and conditions affecting the aircraft.

Schnell and the laboratory team also do research for NASA and the Department of Defense. The research is used to simulate military scenarios in which there are computer AIs that act like a hostile or friendly combatants.

“The thing about flying is that it is like golf,” Schnell said. “ You can always get better, and you’re always meeting someone who is better than you and teaches you new things.”