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MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

AeroAstro Magazine Highlight

The following article appears in the 2009–2010 issue of AeroAstro, the annual report/magazine of the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. © 2010 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.



by Dick Dahl

John Langford

AeroAstro alumnus John Langford is the president and CEO of Aurora Flight Sciences Corp., a Virginia-based company that specializes in the design and construction of unmanned aircraft. Langford, who received his Ph.D. in aeronautics and public policy from MIT in 1987, was a member of MIT's Monarch and Daedalus teams, which designed and built record-setting human-powered aircraft in the 1980s.

Q. Could you describe the Daedalus Project?

Langford: I came back to MIT in the fall of '81 (from a job at Lockheed) for graduate school. While I was working on my master's, the British Aeronautical Society offered a prize called the Kremer Prize, to make a fast, human-powered airplane. "Fast" is a relative term. (Previous unmanned aircraft) had flown at about the speed you could walk. So we put a team together and did Monarch, and we actually won the prize. When that was done, we said, "Well, that was really cool." But everything about Monarch was a compromise for speed — for speed on the plane and speed on the project. Afterward, we were sitting around kicking back and forth the question, "How good could you make one of these?" Had it advanced to the point where you could re-create the myth of Daedalus?' We began to mention this publicly and, much to our surprise, instead of having a bunch of people scoffing, there were people around the department who thought this was pretty cool and encouraged us on. That became a three-year program that first did an airplane that was called the Michelob Light Eagle, because our first sponsor was Anheuser Busch, who underwrote the project with several hundred thousand dollars. We built the Eagle in '86 and in January of '87 we took it out to NASA Dryden (Flight Research Center in California) and it set five world records that still stand today. It still only went half the distance you'd have to go for the Daedalus flight (of 115 kilometers), but we proved that we could build an airplane with amazing performance. Based on that success, we got United Technologies to underwrite the actual construction of two Daedalus airplanes and in April of '88 we used one of those to fly from Crete up to Santorini and those records still stand today.

Q. How did Daedalus work?

Langford: A Greek Olympic cyclist by the name of Kanellos Kanellopoulos pedaled this thing using really good bicycle cranks that instead of driving a chain, drove a drive shaft through gear boxes to a very fancy propeller. It had the most amazing machine known to man — the human body — being applied in a different way. The human body is a great thinking machine, but it's not a great airplane engine. It was actually that experience of integrating unusual power sources into airplanes that is one of Aurora's fortes.

Q. Is that why you created Aurora?
Langford: Aurora was formed a year later with the idea of taking the technology that had come out of the Daedalus project and applying it to practical applications. The issue we first got directly involved in was stratospheric ozone. A team led by a scientist named Jim Anderson, who was a chemist at Harvard, put very sophisticated instruments on NASA's U2 and they flew it out of South America and down through the polar vortex and provided the data that were needed to make the positive diagnosis that it was CFCs that were triggering this catalytic cycle that was destroying ozone. The Harvard team was interested in finding ways to make these measurements more affordably and faster and safer.

I sent out a dozen letters to different people in industry and government that said we had this great student project; it said that we think if we took the technology of Daedalus — and at the time we were envisioning it as a solar-powered airplane — put thin solar cells on it, put some kind of energy-storage batteries or fuel cells in it so it can stay up overnight, you could have a platform that, unmanned, could stay up indefinitely. Of those 12 letters, only one person answered, and that was Jim Anderson, who said, "Sure, we think this is a great idea and we would love to collaborate with you on it." That was the genesis of Aurora.

Langford with the Williams International turbojet that powers Aurora's Excalibur high-speed VTOL aircraft.

John Langford

It was a classic startup that took the few savings I had from my job at Lockheed, and that got us started in June of 1989 with two other Daedalus colleagues. We started in a little office in Alexandria, Virginia. And then Jim Anderson helped us get an "angel" investor who put in a couple hundred thousand dollars, and that helped launch the company and got us to the point where we began to win government contracts through the Small Business Innovative Research program, and one thing kind of led to another, and for the next five years for sure and almost through Aurora's was an absolutely impossible goal when we started is actually possible. Seventy percent is not as crazy as it sounds. It's not easy, but you can in fact get a 40 or 50 percent reduction with a re-optimization of the whole system. This team has had a great first phase. This is all still study work, but of course what Aurora hopes will happen is that NASA will find our ideas compelling enough that we'll be able to build a demonstrator airplane. We're not proposing that MIT and Aurora start building commercial transports, but we do think that the team that we've got can build a demonstrator. That's exactly what Aurora does and is in business to do. It would be a sub-scale demonstrator, which in this case would still be a pretty big airplane that could demonstrate the technologies that could produce 40 to 70 percent reductions in fuel use in future commercial airliners. Then, at that point, you obviously need to team with one of the major primes that's in the commercial aircraft business.

Q. What projects are you working on now that are related to energy and environment?
Langford: The current issue we're focused on is the melting of the Greenland ice pack. What we're working to do is take Jim Anderson's instruments and one of our airplanes and equip it with special radar that can see through the ice and measure the thickness of the ice pack and basically map it on a detailed basis and track it over time to find out how quickly it's going to melt. This is not just an area of academic interest — this is what blows my mind. What really brought it home for me was when Jim Anderson showed me a map of Cambridge that he had developed to show to his own board, and it showed how much of Cambridge was under water if the global sea level rises one meter, three meters seven meters. At seven meters, most of Harvard is under water. And if the ice pack all melts, it's seven meters. At three meters, MIT is gone. And we're not talking hundreds of years any more. There's evidence to support that it could happen in a century; there's even some evidence to suggest that it could be in the next 30 or 40 years. It's mind-boggling. And yet, the support is not there to even do the fundamental research. There's one little program here and one little program there. There's no systematic program to track and collect the measurements. And, it's still hard to get research money to investigate the state of the planet.

The U.S. government needs to re-focus its priorities for the issues that matter today. Unfortunately, it takes these cataclysmic events, like 9/11, to change these big bureaucracies. What we at Aurora want to see happen is that there has to be the same kind of focus on researching and measuring the environment that there is today on tracking terrorists. We've flown about 3 million flight hours with unmanned airplanes tracking terrorists because, in the post 9/11 world order, we are focused on individuals — where is a specific individual, what are they doing? We've developed the means to track them, and that's what robotic airplanes do. The utilization has gone from almost nothing to huge. But science flying is still about a thousand hours a year. It's a huge issue that this technology is here, but we have not found the national will to apply it, to take the measurements that we need to take, to figure out what the heck is going on with the environment. That's one of the great things about being back (working with) MIT. It's a way of pulling in the next generation of talent and enthusiasm to help us solve this problem.

Dick Dahl is a freelance writer who lives in Somerville, MA. He may be reached at

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