Assignment brings pair to Redstone Test Center
An academic assignment at Redstone Arsenal turned into an opportunity of a lifetime for two West Point cadets to experience the Army’s best aviation systems.
Victoria Walling and Jason Sommerfeld, who will enter their senior year as mechanical engineering students at West Point this fall, got their first choice for their academic individual advancement development assignments this summer when they were selected to spend four weeks at the Redstone Test Center’s Aviation Flight Test Directorate. Their last day at Redstone is Friday.
“Our assignment was to shadow in industry or in military research, really anything in the mechanical engineering field,” Sommerfeld said. “The assignments are based on class ranking and order of merit. It was pretty awesome that we both got our first choice.”
Walling, who had talked to another cadet assigned to RTC in the past, knew it was the right choice for a cadet fascinated by helicopters.
“This was the place we really needed to be. I knew we could learn a lot here,” she said.
And RTC was ready to show them all the capabilities of the Aviation Flight Test Directorate.
“This is an academic assignment for West Point where we hope to reinforce the lessons they’ve learned in the classroom, especially in the area of aerodynamics,” AFTD commander Maj. Marc Dalziel said.
“We like to inspire young cadets to branch aviation. We’re shameless about that. We are 100 percent confident in the abilities of these two future leaders.”
The two cadets chose West Point for different reasons. Sommerfeld grew up in Illinois in a home where his parents hosted refugees from war-torn countries, which gave him an appreciation for freedom and the opportunity to serve his country. Waller, an Iowa girl looking for an exciting career, happened to read “Stormin’ Norman” Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s autobiography in high school, which spiked her interest in military service.
Both cadets are interested in pursuing an aviation career as a pilot, but admit they still have several academic and training challenges to overcome to reach that goal.
“I am still keeping the doors pretty open on my career,” Walling said. “There are still a couple of doors left to go through before aviation can be my career choice.”
The two cadets participated in several observation and orientation flights, and flights that Army pilots are required to take to maintain their flight status. They were grounded, though, during actual test flights.
“We couldn’t fly during a test because those have certain weight restrictions and other requirements,” Sommerfeld said.
They flew in both fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft. Their first flight was in a T-34 fixed wing aircraft.
“We learned about the aircraft’s capabilities. Several of our flights were oriented toward the engineering and handling requirements of the aircraft,” Sommerfeld said.
“Everything I learned in a semester of aerodynamics I learned in one flight. It all made sense to me. Some of the flights we took demonstrated the engineering principles behind the test techniques.”
They also flew in a UH-1H Huey, a UH-72 Lakota and a HH-60M Medevac Black Hawk.
“We learned about the techniques used in flight test maneuvers. We were shown the basics of tactical flying and we were shown the routes pilots use to test low-level flying,” Walling said.
The cadets also shadowed engineers and technicians on the ground who were gathering and analyzing data from aircraft during testing.
“We got to talk to flight test engineers, and attend briefings so that we could learn what they do in tests to get the data they need,” Walling said. “We spent a lot of time talking to engineers, and seeing what they do and why they do it.”
They also visited NASA’s propulsion area and RTC’s environment test component directorate. They observed missiles tested at the Arsenal’s ranges, and component testing of the Patriot missile.
“We got to see how they test missiles for transportation. We saw a glimpse of the engineering that goes into missiles,” Walling said.
The cadets enjoyed learning about the engineering that goes into testing both aviation and missile systems.
“They all fly, so it’s the same basic principle,” Walling said.
The four weeks at RTC helped them to get a look at the bigger picture.
“This has helped us to understand how it all works together, how it all fits together,” Sommerfeld said.
“Redstone Arsenal is also part of the acquisition process. So we got to see how things work with requests for modifications or for new equipment. We got to see what the systems go through before they are fielded. We’ve really gained a better appreciation for all the different systems used in the military, and how they are engineered and tested.”
The experience at RTC helped them see the practical application of their textbook lessons.
“Seeing how the data is collected and compiled puts a little bit of life into the charts and graphs found in our textbooks,” Sommerfeld said.
The experience gave the cadets an appreciation for the processes an aviation or missile system must go through before it’s put in the hands of Soldiers.
“Seeing the level of detail they have to go through to test an aviation system fights some of the cynicism that you can have when you don’t understand why it takes so long to get something into the field,” Walling said. “There is a valid reason why it takes so long. Now that I’ve been there and seen it, I know there are reasons why research and testing and fielding often involve a lengthy process.”
Both cadets felt welcomed and encouraged by RTC engineers, most of whom are veterans themselves.
“Everybody has been great about showing us what they do. They are like ‘Come see what we do,’” Walling said.
As they return to West Point, the challenge for the two cadets is taking the lessons learned at RTC and applying them to their careers.
“We learned so much. I am not sure if I was able to absorb everything. There was so much information and it’s awesome. But it’s also hard to retain it,” Sommerfeld said.
Both will share their experiences with other West Point cadets considering an aviation career. And both say they have nothing but accolades for the RTC training experience.
“We have a lot of summer training that we go through, a lot of field training and we learn a lot about the infantry. This experience at RTC is what I categorize as learning about engineering,” Waller said.
They hope they have left a good impression with RTC employees.
“We respect what they do here and all the hard work they put into what they are doing,” Waller said. “I hope they’ve seen us as motivated and ready to learn. And I hope that, as we go into our careers, that they think we’re going to lead our Soldiers well.”