Who were they?
The dean's office didn't know. Department heads didn't know. The university's physics department, which is pretty cozy with NASA, didn't know either.
"It's unusual for students to win a significant competition like this without having a lot of faculty involvement," said Robert Marley, college of engineering dean. "But it appears these students were exceptionally motivated and capable. I applaud them for their initiative and determination."
NASA was impressed too. It awarded John Nelsen, a senior in mechanical engineering from Great Falls, and Isaiah Helm, a ME sophomore from Jordan, second place in the Fundamental Aeronautics Program of NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate.
Nelsen and Helm tied for second place with two other teams: One made up of three doctorate students and one senior undergraduate from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and one of 10 undergraduates from the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.
They were awarded certificates, plaques and summer internships at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. Due to previous obligations, both refused the internship.
"It was an awesome surprise, because I'd seen the competition in the past," Nelsen said. "Getting second against such big teams made all the work worth it."
Civil engineering adjunct professor Mike Edens did sign off on the project to meet a competition requirement, but "for this project I was just a signature," Edens said. "Much of the preliminary work was already completed when John came to me."
"Basically we did this on our own," a humble-sounding Nelsen said "We really didn't do any meetings with faculty."
The pair designed a system for reducing commercial aircraft noise. After watching jets take off and land at Gallatin Field, the pair determined a landing aircraft is louder than one taking off.
"Aircraft use reverse thrusters to slow down," Nelsen said. "Our idea was to make those smaller, so they made less noise. But to do that we had to come up with a way to compensate for the weaker thrust."
They developed a "speed brake" to help slow the aircraft during landing. In their model, the brake looks like two large flaps that rise at a slight angle over the passenger compartment. In flight, the flaps would be flush with the rest of the aircraft, but during landing they would create drag using the same principle as a parachute.
"There is a good deal of generalization," Helm said. "We didn't calculate what structural changes would be needed to the aircraft frame for these brakes."
Under the NASA competition guidelines, generalization was a given. No competition entry could be longer than 25 pages, short for any kind of significant engineering report.
This was the first time Helm had entered the competition, but the third time for Nelsen, who will graduate in December. His previous attempts had netted a sixth and third place.
Nelsen had seen a flier for the most recent competition in the fall of 2005 and asked a professor if he knew any students interested in forming a team. The professor made an announcement during a class and Helm stepped forward. Prior to this, the pair had never met. They worked together from August 2005 until a few days before the entry deadline in April 2006.
"I tried not to think about how we would do," Helm said after the entry was sent off. "It was a lot of work, a lot of otherwise free time."