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Engineering alum earns highest award in aeronautics

Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Engineering alum earns highest award in aeronautics
OU alum Alan Pinnick (SECS '81) works as a mechanical engineer and has earned his field's highest honor for his work on the X-47B.
Alan Pinnick’s career has really taken off since he graduated from Oakland University in 1981 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

Now at the pinnacle of a highly successful career, he has joined an elite group of aeronautic pioneers who have earned his field’s highest honor, the Robert J. Collier Trophy.

The National Aeronautic Association presented this year’s award to Pinnick, as part of the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) industry team. He works as a mechanical engineer specializing in aircraft mechanical systems for the Skunk Works© division of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.

In May 2013, the group successfully launched the X-47B, the first unmanned, tailless aircraft to catapult launch from an aircraft carrier. Three days later, the aircraft made the first carrier-based touch-and-go landings.

Then, on July 10, 2013, the X-47B made history again by being the first unmanned, tailless aircraft to make an arrested landing aboard a carrier. This was Pinnick’s main role in the project. He served as the lead design engineer of the arresting hook system and structure that made the historic landing possible.

Each piece plays its part

“Our Skunk Works© team was part of a partnership that included the U.S. Navy, Northrop Grumman and several other sub-contractors. We worked together to make the X-47B a reality,” Pinnick said in a phone interview from his home in suburban Atlanta. “Our arresting hook system played a key role in the success of landing an unmanned aircraft on the aircraft carrier at speeds of 140 knots.”

Conferred annually, the Collier Trophy is named for Robert J. Collier, publisher of Collier’s Weekly magazine, air sports pioneer and former president of the Aero Club of America. The award recognizes an individual or team who has made "the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America" during the previous year. Past recipients of the trophy include: Orville Wright (1913), Howard Hughes (1938), Neil Armstrong (1969), Dick Rutan (1986) and the B-2 Stealth bomber (1991).

“It is humbling to know you have joined the list of aviation’s most recognizable names and projects,” Pinnick said. “For me, it was a thrill to meet and talk to the legendary Dick Rutan who flew his Voyager aircraft around the world non-stop and unrefueled in 1986.

Early influencers at OU

Pinnick also recalled fond memories of his time at Oakland University. He remembers learning about internal combustion engines and hydraulics while on campus. He said his early influencers, like professor Bhushan Bhatt, left a lasting impression on him that helped guide his career.

Pinnick was a standout student during his time at Oakland, according to current School of Engineering and Computer Science Dean Louay M. Chamra, Ph.D. “Alan earned OU’s Professional Development award as a graduating senior by demonstrating personal initiative and the greatest technical development in his studies.”

That award plaque bearing Pinnick’s name is on permanent display in the Dean’s suite.

“Now, Alan is part of Collier Trophy history. That is a crowning professional achievement for him and something we can all be proud of at Oakland University,” added Chamra.

Pinnick and his wife Brenda say they are looking forward to their next visit to Oakland University to tour the new home of the School of Engineering and Computer Science that will be unveiled this fall. They will likely make the visit to Michigan in a plane Alan built and flies himself!

Visit oakland.edu/secs to learn more about the School of Engineering and Computer Science opportunities at Oakland University.

Watch video of the first X-47B landing.