Ten months before he embarked on US Air Force pilot training, David Thirtyacre (’87 Mech. Eng.) forged a bond with aerodynamics in Washington State University wind tunnels.

Recently graduated from WSU and awaiting his trip to Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, he worked as a research assistant on several projects that centered around using tiny beads instead of smoke to visualize air flow.

David Thirtyacre monitors a drone through VR glasses.
David Thirtyacre (Courtesy David Thirtyacre)

“A photo would show the movement of the bead during the exposure as a vector which could be measured,” Thirtyacre explains. “Another experiment involved using white noise injected into the wind tunnel to increase the energy of the airflow and improve wing aerodynamics.”

The experience with WSU’s wind tunnels helped propel Thirtyacre through 26 years of active duty as a fighter pilot and gradual transition to his role as chair of the department of flight at the College of Aeronautics of the Daytona Beach, Florida-based Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU).

During his Air Force career, Thirtyacre served as an assistant weapons officer for four years at Ramstein Air Base in Germany before being assigned as chief of weapons and tactics at Aviano Air Base in Italy. From 1997 to 2014, he served at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

He finished a master’s degree at ERAU in the early 2000s and taught at Nellis AFB as an adjunct professor. Those experiences as both student and educator gave Thirtyacre a path to return home to Washington, where ERAU has five campuses. “Back here, we have horses, chickens, and everything on a farm,” says Thirtyacre, who grew up in University Place, just south of Tacoma, and now lives in Eatonville.

The ERAU department of flight is dedicated solely to drones, and one of Thirtyacre’s top concerns is drone operational safety. With the growth of small unmanned aircraft systems, Thirtyacre says, “The degrees offered have to keep course content current, which is difficult in a fast-moving industry.”

The ERAU curriculum for unmanned systems instruction has grown to over 30 courses⁠—everything from how to pass the Federal Aviation Administration exam to industrial inspection courses and several courses for public safety agencies. Even for experienced pilots, there is a learning curve. “Every one of the faculty is a pilot,” Thirtyacre says. “Students are trained to not only fly, but to do it precisely and accurately. Going from manned aviation to a drone, it is totally different.”

Once the mechanics are mastered, practical uses for drones span far and wide. Last year, ERAU assisted marine biologists by using drones to monitor injured mammals, such as seals who need medication or help getting disentangled from objects. Through a partnership with Verizon and use of a drone platform, the drones deliver data without increasing the mammals’ distress or disturbing the surrounding environment.

“We set up about 10 different aircraft with a test area for them,” Thirtyacre says. “We came up with some good rules of thumb for what aircraft to use, how close to fly, and how to approach wildlife.”

Now, Thirtyacre teaches undergraduate and graduate aerodynamics. And he has a home-built wind tunnel in his garage, a passion that was ignited nearly 35 years ago at WSU.