James May's Toy Stories

James May's Toy Stories

Brunel's student aerospace engineers helped design, build and fly and unmanned glider across the Bristol Channel for a BBC TV special hosted by Top Gear star James May at Christmas.

The special episode of James May's Toy Stories, entitled 'Flight Club', saw the 14-strong student team play an instrumental role in re-designing May's original glider to ensure successful completion of its planned flight.

The engineless glider flew 22 nautical miles, an unofficial British straight distance record. Lecturer in Aerospace Engineering Dr Mark Jabbal, who led the team, explained the students' pivotal role in the project's success: "Most of the undergraduate and postgraduate students who took part had recently completed major group projects related to building and flying model aircraft. Their expertise and practical knowhow were invaluable, and they had a unique setting in which to apply what they had learned".

The proposed glider was a Slingsby T45 Swallow, reminiscent of the models May built as a child. After testing a large-scale replica of the glider in a wind tunnel, the Brunel team redesigned the wing cross-section to improve its aerodynamic efficiency; led by Aerospace Engineering student George Schofield, they used the aircraft modelling software XFLR5 to choose a new aerofoil. This increased the model's glide ratio - the ratio of forward motion to decent - from 14:1 to 20:1, theoretically allowing it to cover the distance proposed. With the new wing parts cut, the student engineers worked together at Wycombe Air Centre to assemble the glider.

The Brunel team was responsible for assembling the wings, tail and fin and worked alongside May, a keen aviator, who constructed the fuselage with the assistance of an engineer. Over 1,000 pieces of balsa wood were used to make the four-metre wingspan glider. A delay to the flight date due to poor weather conditions was exacerbated by changing the proposed method of launching the glider at altitude from a balloon to a helicopter. Aviation and Pilot Studies student and remote control model aircraft enthusiast Tom Small was at the glider controls in the helicopter, in regular communication with James May and the production team who tracked the glider from a speedboat. The first ever attempt from Ilfracombe in North Devon to Oxwich Bay in South Wales was severely hampered by bad weather and visibility. The helicopter reached only 2,000ft - some 6,000ft less than the required launch height - and consequently the glider flew only 2.5 miles before hitting the sea. For the second attempt, an easterly wind meant that the flight route had to be changed to run from Ilfracombe to Lundy Island, but with high visibility the helicopter was able to reach an altitude of 10,000ft before deploying the glider. The final attempt proved very successful, with the glider reaching Lundy Island with approximately 2,000ft of altitude to spare.

Of the Brunel students, James May said: "I was very impressed with the students for the work they put in on the new wing. I chose the Slingsby Swallow glider because it was reminiscent of the Keil-Kraft type of gliders I built as a kid. I knew as soon as I saw the plan, however, that the wing section was pretty inefficient but didn't know how to calculate a new one. The Brunel students did, and came up with something pretty quickly. It worked very well".