Crossley eager to help AAE

William A. Crossley
William A. Crossley

William A. Crossley didn't offer much advance notification.

He was attending The Boeing Company’s Everett, Washington, facility to present a final overview on a project completed by a group of aeronautics and astronautics faculty and their students in collaboration with Boeing and knew it’d be a short trip. So his plan was to essentially get in and out, without alerting any former students turned Boeing employees to his presence.

But before he left, Crossley and the Purdue team were scheduled for a VIP tour of the floor of the factory, one of the largest manufacturing buildings in the world, where Boeing produces thousands of airplanes.

Though Crossley had worked in the aerospace industry for years, he still was somewhat in awe walking the factory floor past all the company’s airliners, the 747-8, the 767, the 787 and the 777. Crossley has had an affinity for airplanes since he was a kid. One of his earliest memories is watching father Guy take off on a commercial flight from their hometown airport in Cincinnati, Ohio, wondering, “How does that thing work?” Crossley turned that curiosity into an aerospace engineering degree, a job at McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Systems, and then a gig teaching college students exactly how “that thing” works.

So, naturally, Crossley was in a bit of a state of wonder passing the planes that took the place of those his dad, a chemical engineer, once hopped on so frequently. Crossley was knocked out of that reverie when he heard a commotion across the assembly plant floor — then saw three bodies rushing toward him. They were three of Crossley’s former students, giddy at not only seeing one of their most influential professors for the first time in years but also eager to show off their handiwork.

That 787-9 plane Crossley was standing in front of? That was theirs.

“Professor Crossley, can you get on our airplane?” they asked him.

Crossley was happy to oblige — and soaked in the moment, realizing it was a manifestation of the impact he’d had on a small group of inquisitive, determined engineers. He calls it one of the most validating moments of his career.

That happened in 2014. Crossley still gets emotional when he tells the story.

“I knew I helped the students on the path they wanted to go on,” he said.

That’s the heart of what Crossley wants to continue to do, now in a larger role. In May, Crossley was chosen to succeed Tom Shih as the next head of the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. On July 20, Crossley assumed the position of J. William Uhrig and Anastasia Vournas Head of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

As a member of the faculty since 1995, Crossley helped shape AAE into one of the world’s most respected and highly ranked aerospace engineering programs. As a teacher, he has showcased a passion for nurturing students, piquing their curiosity and challenging their assumptions, molding innovative thinkers into doers and developing impactful engineers. As director of Partnership to Enhance General Aviation Safety, Accessibility and Sustainability (PEGASAS), the Federal Aviation Administration Center of Excellence for General Aviation, Crossley has demonstrated an ability to assemble large teams, both across campus at Purdue and across the multiple universities in PEGASAS, and guide them to remarkable accomplishments. As an innovator and leader in online learning, Crossley was the first AAE faculty member to teach distance learning courses and has continued to be at the forefront of helping educate non-traditional students by expanding the AAE curriculum and strengthening the program’s online reputation beyond campus.

As head, Crossley hopes to expand on new opportunities to challenge how students learn, support pioneering research among faculty, and create a more representative identity for the school.

“The school has helped me succeed, and now it’s my turn to help the school succeed. As the head, I can help,” he said. “I know I can help the faculty on the paths they want to go on. I can’t provide every path for everybody, but I know I can help the school and the people in the school — the students, the staff, and the faculty — with a direction forward. I’d like us to have a journey we can share. I want to do that.”

It’s an ideal time for the opportunity, too.

Crossley called it an “incredibly exciting time” for aerospace in myriad areas, ranging from electric vertical take-off and landing urban air taxis, commercial space in low-Earth orbit, crewed space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, the revisit of supersonic aircraft, advanced manufacturing impacting aerospace, digital twins leveraging data science, electric propulsion, and autonomy in air and space.

He is eager to lead AAE into that exhilarating era by continuing to build on the school’s strengths: Fostering original thinkers and future engineers who will make those ideas reality; and equipping faculty to explore research to answer yet-unknown questions an evolving industry reveals.

But he’s also excited to see how the school can gain momentum. One way could be by defining themes that unite the school and explicitly show how the efforts of the school are enabling the future of aerospace: Safe, efficient, and sustainable air transportation; access to and exploration of space; maintaining defense and security; and using aerospace to facilitate new opportunities.

“Purdue Aeronautics and Astronautics is in the midst of all these themes,” Crossley said. “What the students learn here in their class work and research contributes to how aerospace makes the world better. These themes will make our contributions more obvious and uncover additional opportunities for collaboration.”

Part of embracing that, too, is reevaluating the curriculum. As a member of the curriculum committee before being named head, Crossley already had been working with faculty to shape a new program for students. While making sure students get the core of what they need to be aerospace engineers, students could be better prepared for the progressing industry if the curriculum provides the opportunity to learn about other areas as an undergraduate to make sure they leave the program as a well-rounded aerospace engineer. 

“A lot of the evolution in aerospace, the changes we see, have often come because something has happened outside of what we normally think of as aerospace,” Crossley said.

Advancements in electric motors and batteries have been driven by ground transportation, and electric power isn’t taught in AAE’s curriculum because it hadn’t been part of what aerospace engineers needed to know, Crossley said. But those developments could translate into electric airplanes and urban air mobility. That presents an aerospace interest and is one of many examples in which an “aerospace plus” option comes in.

How future courses would be delivered is another element Crossley wants to examine.

AAE already has a large footprint in Purdue Online Learning, from Crossley’s early willingness to teach his multi-disciplinary design optimization course online to now offering unique courses in remote sensing, space traffic management and electric spacecraft propulsion, among others. As of summer 2019, AAE had 41 courses available through Purdue Online Learning.

“It lets Purdue reach out to students who aren’t here in West Lafayette and lets them have access to our program. I think the impact we have on the aerospace industry by providing that is really big. It could be bigger,” Crossley said.

With AAE enrollment at an all-time high — a projection of at least 1,500 students for Fall 2019 — perhaps changing how content is delivered could play a major role in providing the growing student population a rewarding experience. Perhaps virtual labs could allow students to get the experience of running a physical experiment without actually running one. Perhaps online content could provide a captivating experience, adapting the course to include more than just faculty delivering material. They’re approaches that could benefit on-campus and distance students.

“I think it’s the right time to try to do that. The landscape is such that we can do that,” Crossley said.

Anything he can do to help.