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Picture: Charlie Dunton and his kite Red Cloud

Charlie Dunton,
NASA Engineer and Master Kite Builder

Personal History:

I graduated in 1971 from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and went to work at Teledyne Brown Engineering in Huntsville, Ala. In 1976, the Marshall Space Flight Center reduced contractor levels and my stint with Teledyne Brown came to an end. I then went to Hampton, Virginia, working for NASA Langley Research Center by supporting the Fracture Mechanics Section in facilities engineering. I've been with them ever since.

Question 1: Can you describe your work?

I do two main things here. First, I handle fracture mechanics analysis of wind tunnel models. Fracture mechanics deal with how fast a crack will grow until the part, or model, fails. We put these models into wind tunnels to see how well they fly. My job is to make sure that the models are safe during testing. We don't want them to break in the tunnels where they could cause a lot of damage.

I also do recertification of all high pressure piping for all the wind tunnels at NASA Langley. My job is to make sure the high pressure systems are safe. We try to catch and repair any problems before they occur.

Question 2: How did you get interested in kites?

My dad got me interested in kites in 1979. He had flown kites as a boy. He made a lot of handmade kites and that got me interested. He asked if I wanted to join him in a kite contest and I thought it would be fun. I built one and he built a couple and we entered various events at the Wright Kite festival in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane. We won some blue ribbons and after that, I was hooked.

Charlie Dunton and his son.

We went back every year to the Wright Kite Festival until his death in 1993 and I've been carrying on the tradition with my youngest son ever since. Incidentally, my son has beaten me in altitude sprint contests, where they see who can put out the most line safely in a short period of time.

Question 3: Aren't kites just toys? Why are you spending time learning about them?

Kites are not a direct part of my job, but there was an engineer named Francis Rogallo, who worked with kites in the wind tunnels at NASA Langley. They tested his kites with the idea of using them with the Project Mercury Astronauts program and for pilot ejection systems from airplanes. Those things never happened but he took his ideas and turned them into hang gliders, which are now used all over the world.

I have 5 things that I really like about kite flying:

1. Working with aerodynamic design. I like to either improve an old design or to come up with a new design for a kite that flies even better.

2. Mechanical design. I enjoy figuring out how to make kites strong but light. I work on how they fit together, whether they assemble easily, and how to keep them from getting broken in high winds.

3. Graphic design. I enjoy drawing artistic things and the kites give me a wonderful platform in the sky to make beautiful art. I decorate the kite by taking different colors of nylon and sewing them together to make the design. Some people paint their kites, but I sew. My wife taught me how to do that.

4. Craftsmanship. When you enter a kite contest the judges look at how well you made the kite. They check how straight you sewed the seams and how neat the overall piece of work is.

5. Just showing off and having fun. This is the greatest part about making and flying kites. You build a kite which you have put all this effort into, and you still don't know whether it works. Then you put it into the air and it flies! It's a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. It doesn't even have to be a really fancy kite. I just designed a delta kite out of a trash bag for my wife's 7th grade math class and it worked great. Flying it felt like a million bucks.

Question 4: Have the lessons that you learned from kites helped you in your "real" job?

Picture: A Charlie Dunton kite.

The main lesson that you learn is very important to my real job. It's paying attention to detail and trying to do your best job possible. If you put enough time into it at the beginning, it's going to work in the end. If your work is quick and sloppy, that's the kind of result you're going to get.

Question 5: Would you encourage young people to pursue careers in aeronautics? Why?

There has been a lot of talk about layoff, firings and down sizing in aeronautics, but the aerospace industry is going to be with us forever. I think that aerospace work will continue to have many good jobs to offer bright students. And in the aerospace industry, there is something for everyone. You can work with computers, or do pure research with airplanes and everything. There is something for everybody in aeronautics. It's a great field.

Question 6: Does math help you in your job, and if so how?

Math is an essential part of what I do. I look at the stresses in things to see whether they are safe or are going to break. Every part of this job is dependent on mathematics. I simply can't do any of my job without math.

Question 7: Would you encourage young people to pursue careers in math and if so, why?

If someone has an interest in mathematics itself they should definitely pursue it. No matter what you decide you are going to do, you should take as much math as you can because it's important and you are certainly going to need it.

Question 8: Is there anything else you would like to say to young people?

Believe in the fact that you can do whatever you want, but you are going to have to work for it because nobody is going to give it to you. The more education you have, the better you are going to be able to cope with the changing job market of today. It's getting to the point where you have to study your whole life to stay ahead. But with hard work, and a real interest in what you are doing, you will certainly succeed.

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