CORVALLIS - Brad Burchett will get his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering this June from Oregon State University, but he isn't really looking forward to getting away from the quiet life of academia so he can start a family, find his first real job or do something more exciting. He's already been there, done that.
A few years ago, U.S. Air Force Capt. Burchett was screaming along at more than 400 miles per hour, a few hundred feet off the ground in a B-52 bomber as part of training flights with the Strategic Air Command. More recently he was doing high-level bombing missions over Kosovo, in a dangerous combat assignment that helped to restore peace to that troubled region of the world. And he and his wife already have their hands full with six children.
So Burchett, 35, is actually looking to settle his life down and return to a field he really loves - teaching.
Armed with his new OSU degree, he's accepted a faculty position at the prestigious Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., which for the second consecutive year was just ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the nation's finest undergraduate engineering program among colleges whose highest degree awarded is a bachelor's or master's.
Burchett says that teaching should be more than enough of a challenge.
"There are different kinds of excitement," Burchett said. "My service in the Air Force was very rewarding, but there's also a lot of satisfaction in seeing a student develop from a high school graduate into a working engineer. And in research, to find out something that no one ever knew before is very exciting. Plus, I'll get to spend some real time with my family and not have to be gone 100-200 days a year."
Since his youth in Michigan, Burchett had dreamed of becoming an aerospace engineer. A talented student, he was able to gain admission to the U.S. Air Force Academy and earned a bachelor's degree in astronautical engineering.
"While at the Air Force Academy, opportunities arose to do some pilot training, and it turned out it was a lot of fun and I was pretty good at it," Burchett said. "So pretty soon I was flying B-52s back in Michigan. That aircraft was designed as a high-altitude, long-range bomber, but in a lot of training runs we flew about 400 feet off the ground. You get to see a lot of the country in a hurry."
The Air Force later helped Burchett get a master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and not long after that he was teaching at the U.S. Military Academy.
"It was at West Point that I found I really enjoyed teaching and scientific research," Burchett said. "I had to endure a reasonable amount of kidding, being an Air Force officer teaching Army cadets. But in the military we all know we really need each other, and it was a great experience."
With an eye toward a career in academia and a little more time with his family, Burchett came to OSU a couple years ago to finish work on a doctoral degree and do research with an OSU engineering faculty member he knew from his military days. While at OSU, Burchett received a NASA Space Grant Fellowship, a Yerex Fellowship, and was selected as the 2001 Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant in Mechanical Engineering. Burchett's field of research is dynamics and control engineering - he did his doctoral thesis on rocket control, such as the types fired from attack helicopters.
"There's work we can do in control engineering to take basic concepts that have been developed for other fields and apply them to such things as aerospace vehicles," Burchett said. "And the underlying mathematics in this area has room for improvement. I'll probably continue with research in this area while I do undergraduate teaching at Rose-Hulman."
In the early days, Burchett said, most aeronautical engineers were primarily mechanical engineers. It's a field of study that allows many different career pursuits, he said, from automobiles to industry to outer space. So with this diverse background and an education that took him from the Air Force Academy to MIT and OSU, Burchett will try to pass along to his new young students knowledge about this field he's come to love. And put to some good use his excitement and enthusiasm for the classroom that he compares favorably to flying a B-52.