At the Heart of Aerospace: San Antonio, TX

By Christopher Combs, Dee Howard Endowed Assistant Professor, University of Texas at San Antonio

The city of San Antonio, unbeknownst to some, has a rich history in aviation with multiple military bases within the city limits, a strong local presence of aviation industry, and a legacy of aviation innovators and entrepreneurs. Take for example Dee Howard, who established the Dee Howard Co. (DHC) in 1964 and quickly became a leader in the engineering and production of improvements for business and commercial jet aircraft. Among other exploits, DHC was contracted for the largest modification of a head-of-state aircraft ever accomplished (according to Boeing) when the company retrofitted a Boeing 747-300 for King Fahad of Saudi Arabia that included, among other things, a working elevator and hospital wing.

Fast forward thirty years since the sale of DHC in 1989 and that 747 is still in service. Likewise, business hums along in San Antonio and the air bases are active. However, the spotlight on aviation in San Antonio slowly waned over that time. Now, here I am, a new faculty member at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) standing in front of a room full of students who—according to a recent comment made to me by one of the current leaders in the aviation industry in San Antonio—have likely not considered a career in aviation or aerospace as an option for one reason or another.

Aerial view of Kelly Field at Port San Antonio, home to major operations by Boeing, StandardAero, GoAeroMX and other industry marquee names, who employ over 3,000 aerospace workers in the region—including aircraft technicians, engineers and researchers. (Photo courtesy Port San Antonio)

My research is in high-speed aerodynamics and hypersonics (vehicles moving faster than five times the speed of sound or about 4,000 mph) and I announced to the class that I was going to need help building a new Mach 7 (seven times faster than the speed of sound) wind tunnel at UTSA. I shared the usual caveats: there was no pay involved, this would not result in extra credit points for class, and oh by the way, our first meeting is Friday afternoon. I invited all who were still interested to attend, fully expecting the meeting to consist primarily of me and a small group of graduate students already working in my lab. To my surprise, over forty students showed up to that first meeting. The excitement in the room was palpable and it was clear that there was a thirst for opportunities in aviation from a student body that was eager to dive in to the aerospace workforce. Students subsequently started their own American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) student chapter, started aviation-themed senior design projects, and requested the department increase the enrollment cap for a new elective course on high-speed aerodynamics not once but twice. This all happened within a span of about five months, prompting the faculty and college leadership to begin working with the Dee Howard Foundation—a non-profit organization in San Antonio established in honor of Dee Howard’s legacy that strives to create aerospace jobs, provide workforce training, and engage in aerospace education activities for Pre-K through the collegiate level—to determine the best way to provide students the aviation skills and education they desired.

In response to the high-demand for an aerospace curriculum at UTSA and the exhibited level of enthusiasm by the student body, the UTSA College of Engineering is now offering an aerospace certificate with support from the Dee Howard Foundation. This program includes a series of technical electives (ranging from aerodynamics to propulsion to astrodynamics) that will help prepare students for engineering careers in aviation and aerospace. Future goals include offering graduate and undergraduate degrees in aerospace engineering while continuing to grow the research capability and related course offerings. By educating the next generation of aerospace engineers we hope to spark a new wave of aviation excellence in San Antonio.

Guest Columnist Christopher Combs

Dr. Combs is currently the Dee Howard Endowed Assistant Professor in Aerodynamics in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UTSA. Prior to starting at UTSA, Dr. Combs worked as a Research Assistant Professor at The University of Tennessee Space Institute. He received his Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from The University of Texas at Austin. His primary area of research interest is in the development and application of non-intrusive diagnostic techniques for compressible flows and he also has extensive experience in investigations of hypersonic flow physics. Dr. Combs is active with AIAA and APS and is a current member of the AIAA Aerodynamic Measurement Technology Technical Committee.