Cal Poly Alumnus Builds Airplane Wing, Shines at National Championship Air Races

First flight of aerospace engineering alumnus JP O'Dell's aircraft with his new wing

For the first time in years, a Cal Poly graduate, a group of students and an aerospace engineering faculty member designed, built and tested a wing that put a pilot in the air. 

It all started when aerospace engineering graduate JP O’Dell bought a Formula One racing aircraft with flight testing in mind. He knew Paulo Iscold, aerospace engineering associate professor, would be the right person to ask for advice because of his work building a flight test program at Cal Poly. 

O’Dell, who graduated from Cal Poly in spring 2021, worked closely with Iscold during his time as an undergraduate. 

“After graduating from Cal Poly, I raced in the Reno Air Races in 2022” O’Dell said. “I then found out that Paulo had designed a wing for a Formula One race aircraft about seven or eight years prior.” 

Coincidentally, the wing Iscold designed was a perfect fit for O’Dell’s Formula One aircraft. 

“I was like, ‘Paulo, you designed a wing for the airplane I just bought!’” O’Dell said. 

The Cal Poly graduate joked with Iscold that his wing design would be a perfect fit for the race aircraft.

“I would text him saying his wing was the best-looking wing at the race,” he said with a laugh. 

After the 2022 races, Iscold asked if his former student wanted a wing he designed – a perfect match for the newly purchased aircraft. 

O’Dell enthusiastically agreed to work with Iscold’s unique wing design and make it his own.

JP O’Dell, Paulo Iscold, Ben Fields and Noah Glaser pose for a picture after the spar and ribs were bonded into the lower skin

“The weekend after the Reno races, I went to San Luis Obispo and talked to Paulo about what it would look like to build my own wing based on one of his original designs,” O’Dell said. 

O’Dell worked with Iscold to make a few changes to the original model to make the wing one of a kind. He met up with a group of current Cal Poly students in Iscold’s class who wanted to volunteer their time helping O’Dell design his wing. 

“I would travel to San Luis Obispo every weekend from October 2022 to June 2023,” he said. “Sometimes I would drive. Sometimes I would fly.” 

O’Dell started with a computer-aided design, or CAD, model of the wing. From there, he used the model to cut molds and tools to make the wing’s carbon parts. 

About 30 Cal Poly students worked on the project, with a core group of four or five. 

“The students would stay at the airport with me until around 1 or 2 a.m. at times,” O’Dell said. 

When the word spread that O’Dell was making his own wing, more students came to help, even inviting their friends to join in on the process. 

“Not a lot of people can put their hands on something that can fly and has a human in it,” he said. 

JP O’Dell and his flight test crew pose for a picture after a successful first flight

Once the aircraft was complete, O’Dell executed 10 hours of flight testing before he could race the plane. 

“The flight testing was done out in Mojave, California, where I work,” he said. “It has an extremely long runway and there’s desert all around, so it’s great for flight testing.” 

After the 10 hours of testing proved successful, O’Dell raced his plane equipped with the unique wing at this year’s National Championship Air Races in September, where he placed third in the silver class and earned the Award for Tech Advancement.

By Taylor Villanueva