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Textbooks to Tarmac: making solar-powered flight a reality

Paige Kassalen stands beneath the wing of an airplane.
Paige Kassalen (BSEE '15) stands with Solar Impulse 2, as part of the solar-powered aircraft's ground crew. Photo Credit: Jean Revillard / REZO

When 23-year-old Paige Kassalen (BSEE '15) joined the 16-person ground crew of the world's first solar-powered plane (Solar Impulse 2), there was no textbook to help her catch the wing of the 5,100-pound aircraft or run the power system of its inflatable mobile hangar.

"It was an experimental aircraft, a flying laboratory," she explained. "We never knew which problems we were going to encounter."

Thinking on her feet

Kassalen, a commercial trainee for Covestro, was selected to represent the high-tech chemical manufacturer as an electrical engineer on the groundbreaking team.

She recalled one of the "most dramatic incidences" of the 17-leg journey when the protective hangar partially deflated, subjecting the plane's tail to the structure's massive weight for approximately two-and-a-half minutes.

"My heart stopped," she said. "We were supposed to continue this around-the-world mission and end up in Abu Dhabi, but I was thinking it might be over in Dayton, Ohio."

Kassalen was on the team of engineers charged with identifying the cause of the accident and developing a solution to prevent a reoccurrence during the rest of the trip.

Solar Impulse 2 successfully completed its global flight on July 26, 2016, and Kassalen is still being recognized for her role as the youngest and only American member of the aircraft's international ground crew team. Earlier this year, she was named one of Forbes' 30 Under 30.

Equipped through ECE's project-based curriculum

Kassalen credits ECE's project-based curriculum for providing her with the problem-solving experience she needed for success. Although Solar Impulse 2 was much larger in scale than the projects she did in the classroom, it required the same problem-solving skill set and toolbox she received from Virginia Tech.

"I never thought I'd get comfortable with it," said Kassalen, talking about her project responsibility. "Then there was a moment in Egypt where I was standing on the runway and thought it was perfectly normal. There was no right way to do ityou do whatever you can to make sure the wing doesn't hit the ground."

Kassalen compared walking into Whittemore Hall and seeing all of her teachers to walking into a home. Concepts she learned in the classroom connected to work in ways she didn't expect. She recalled sitting in the hangar one day thinking about the power generator, and remembering material from Associate Professor Jaime De La Ree's power systems class.

"I would think, wow, this is so relatable. I understand this. I'm speaking this language, and I get it,'" she said.

A reliable engineer

But being a new engineer on a historical aviation mission wasn't always easy, said Kassalen. There was a big difference between the fear of getting a poor grade in class and the responsibility of being liable if the hangar collapsed, cutting short a 12-year project.

Initially, Kassalen spent time learning and finding mentors on the project and in her firm. She said she was determined to be a reliable engineer.

"It's harder to keep trying and pushing yourself if you don't have a strong support system," she said. "That's what I had at Virginia Tech," and she wanted to build a similarly strong support system at Covestro and on the Solar Impulse team.

Today, she's still pushing herself and has adopted Solar Impulse 2's new slogan to "take it further."

"That spirit of adventure, that sprit of exploration and trying something new and making a better world, that's what I want to do," she said.