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USNA adds nuke engineering major, rotorcraft specialty

Jan. 24, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Before heading to sea on a sub or aircraft carrier, midshipmen who major in nuclear engineering at the Naval Academy still must go through nuclear power school and serve in a nuclear power training unit.
Before heading to sea on a sub or aircraft carrier, midshipmen who major in nuclear engineering at the Naval Academy still must go through nuclear power school and serve in a nuclear power training unit. (MC1 Jason J. Perry/Navy)
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Naval Academy midshipmen will soon have the chance to specialize in nuclear engineering or helicopter design — moves that will help them better prepare for the fleet.

The Class of 2017, those who began their plebe year last fall, will be the first able to choose a designated nuclear engineering major. And within the aerospace major, mids set to graduate in 2015 will be able to choose rotorcraft engineering as a specialty.

The nuclear engineering degree includes courses on nuclear propulsion, applications of radiological technology, and systems of nuclear-powered ships and weapons.

The major was cobbled together from existing nuclear engineering classes, with a few electives added in, Academic Dean Andrew Phillips told Navy Times.

“For a number of years, we’ve had students expressing interest in the Naval Academy asking us, ‘So, do you have a nuclear engineering major?’ ” he said in a Jan. 22 phone interview.

The complicated answer to the question was, “No, but yes, and here’s how,” Phillips said. While there was no specific major, it was possible to take nuclear engineering classes within another program.

“That doesn’t ring true to students, so we really felt like we wanted to elevate what we have now to a major status, so the answer to that would be a very simple, ‘Yes, we have that,’ ” he said.

Though it’s not necessary to study nuclear engineering to work on a nuclear-powered submarine or aircraft carrier, the major offers some opportunities.

“Midshipmen will be prepared for nuclear power school and have the option to pursue a master’s degree through graduate study in most any engineering field,” Martin Nelson, a mechanical engineering professor, said in the academy release.

After graduation, nuclear engineering majors headed to submarines or reactor jobs aboard aircraft carriers will still need to complete the rigorous nuclear-power training pipeline. This includes nuclear power school and then nuclear power training units, where they learn to operate real reactors.

Phillips pointed out that academy English majors get through this training as easily as anyone else, but the nuclear engineering major aligns nicely with that career path.

Helicopter experts

While the nuclear engineering major was inspired by student interest, the new rotorcraft specialty in the aerospace major came straight from the fleet.

“Rotorcraft is really a recognition among our own folks in the Navy and the Marine Corps that rotorcraft is a significant component of what we do in the fleet and the fleet Marine force,” Phillips said. “It wasn’t so much a midshipmen interest as it was a recognition that we needed to provide an expertise and a track for that.”

Students will study the aerodynamics and engineering behind fleet workhorses like the SH-60 Seahawk helicopter or the Marines’ MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. Their studies will conclude with a yearlong capstone to design, build and test unmanned rotary-wing aerial vehicles.

The new specialty makes the academy the only school in the country with a formal undergraduate rotary-wing engineering program, according to an academy release.

Future helicopter pilots are enthused.

“The new rotor track offers an exciting opportunity to study rotorcraft as the primary focus, rather than as an addendum to a fixed-wing aviation curriculum,”Midshipman 2nd Class Daniel Kuerbitz, one of the program’s first students, said in the release. “I hope to fly helicopters for either the Navy or Marine Corps, and the program offers a strong understanding of rotorcraft operations, which will no doubt benefit my career as a pilot.”

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