When he was 9 years old, Ewald Schuster saw a Harrier jet scream over Lake Ontario.
For a kid thrilled by science and technology, and especially by all things airborne, it was a pivotal moment.
“I was so blown away, I thought, ‘That’s what I’ve got to do, is make a working model of this,” said Schuster, who now runs the fabrication lab at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering.
He started with a small, balsa-wood model built from plans from a local hobby store. It had a motor and two air nozzles designed to provide vertical lift, one of the hallmarks of the Harrier jet.
He stood watching it lamely blowing the grass around. It was about as far from a Harrier, which can tear up street pavement on liftoff, as you could get.
“It was a waste of time,” he said.
He took it home, disassembled it and threw it out. But that wasn’t the end of his dream.
Twenty-five years later, he’s still tinkering with aircraft designs, helping students craft and test parts for their projects. On the side, he’s nursed a passion for radio-controlled (RC) aircraft, working up from store-bought models to something far more ambitious: a one-sixth scale, radio-controlled Harrier that includes a custom-built jet engine, robotic steering and — most prized of all — the ability to vertically lift off and land.
In the world of serious RC hobbyists, no one has ever built a working version of the Harrier this detailed, and at this size, with working transition from vertical lift to thrust.
“If someone ever pulls off the Harrier, it would steal the show,” Schuster said. “People have been waiting for this. There have been maybe 10 teams that I’ve known that have tried this — all have given up or failed.”
[For a Discovery Channel video about Ewald Schuster's jet, click here.]
The Harrier jet is difficult to control due to its speed. Make it six times smaller, and you have an aircraft that reacts six times faster and is even more prone to crashes, Schuster said. Hence the need for a complicated, onboard computer that stabilizes the jet while it’s airborne.
For anyone who hasn’t flown an RC aircraft since they were a kid: It’s not the same hobby anymore. There are still store-bought kits, of course, but there’s far more serious engineering going on as well. In Europe especially, hobbyists tend to custom-build their own aircraft rather than rely on store-bought parts. On his model Harrier, Schuster said that “there’s virtually nothing you can buy.”
The jet engine includes the compressor from a car turbo charger — the single item that can be purchased.
“Everything else I had to make,” Schuster said. “Before I came to USC, the engine was done and running.”
During his time at USC Viterbi, Schuster has helped students make molds and carbon fiber parts for their projects. Inevitably, each semester would find a few students working on the Harrier jet. Schuster said a number of them have reported being hired by Raytheon over the years, specifically citing the mold-making skills they learned working on the jet.
The fabrication lab holds a fuel-based version of the craft that Schuster hopes to finally see roaring overhead. Until now, test flights have been run with an electric version, largely as a practice model.
Inevitably, there will be crashes.
“I’ve been in this hobby my whole life, so if you build a plane thinking it’s never going to crash, you got another think comin’,” Schuster said. “It’s very frustrating to put another one together. All the pieces have to fit properly. It’s very nerve-racking even flying the electric. I don’t know what I’ll be like when I fly this.”
The fuel version holds about a gallon of kerosene; a crash would mean a fireball that would devour years of work, from the fuselage to the engine. Schuster said it would require starting from scratch.
He estimated he’s put roughly 40,000 hours into the project overall and adds that he might not have been as persistent if he’d known just how much time would be involved.
But he has no regrets about following his passion.
“Even if this didn’t work, I learned how to make my own jet engine and so much about composites and mold making,” he said. “It’s one hell of a story.”