Virginia Tech’s Design, Build, Fly team recently finished in fourth place overall at the 28th annual AIAA / Textron Aviation Design, Build, Fly (DBF) Competition. This marks the Virginia Tech team's third consecutive year with a top five finish.

The 2024 contest was held April 18-21 in Wichita, Kansas, and attracted more than 1000 university students on 96 teams attending onsite who spent the weekend testing their radio-controlled aircraft. 

For the annual competition, student teams are tasked with designing, fabricating, and demonstrating the flight capabilities of unmanned, electric-powered, radio-controlled aircraft to meet specified mission requirements. In 2024, teams focused on an urban air mobility style mission. Designs were required to fit within a two and a half foot wide parking space and have a maximum wingspan of five feet. 

Virginia Tech’s aircraft, the Hokie Express, had its fair share of challenges leading up to the event. According to team leads Owen Cain and Pranay Patel, the team built four iterations of their design, the fourth of which flew at the competition. Less than two weeks before traveling to Wichita, the team completed some flight tests on their third iteration (AV3) on the asphalt airstrip located at the Kentland Experimental Aerial Systems Laboratory. This aircraft crashed. AV3 was meant to be the closest iteration to the competition specification aircraft, and the crash called for quick and critical design decisions to be made. 

Three days before departing Blacksburg, the team regrouped back at Kentland for one last flight test with the competition model. The model was still experiencing significant stability issues on the first flight with unexpected rolling characteristics. The team was able to resolve this simply by removing the winglets, an area in which the team had never considered to be causing the problem. 

Fourteen team members traveled to Wichita for the competition, which consisted of one ground mission and three flight missions. Virginia Tech passed the technical inspections with no issues. The ground mission required demonstrating how quickly the aircraft could be loaded and ready for flight. To fit within the 2.5 foot parking space, Virginia Tech had to rotate their five-foot wingspan 90 degrees, and prepare their payload for flight. For their flight missions, the 23 lb. aircraft needed to take off in less than twenty feet and fly three laps in five minutes. The two missions were payload centric, focusing on weight and speed – the Hokie Express clocked a top speed of over 80 miles per hour.


The Virginia Tech team is comprised of approximately 100 undergraduate students from the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering and from majors across the College of Engineering. In their lab space located in the Joseph F. Ware Jr. lab, a smaller group of about 30 students designed and fabricated their plane and then conducted dozens of test flights.

Throughout the year, the group held design reviews with their faculty advisor, Rakesh Kapania. Outside of the aerospace and ocean engineering department, the team also relied on design reviews and feedback from Design, Build, Fly alumni. 

Written reports were submitted to the AIAA and scored in February, impacting both the order of flights at the competition and the teams’ overall competition scores. For the second consecutive year, Virginia Tech placed third overall for their design report, which will be published by AIAA. According to Cain and Patel, the written design report is key to achieving a top five finish. Next year the team hopes to spend more time focusing on scoring analysis, and directing the subteams to optimize their design to get the highest score in at least one of the flight missions or the ground mission.

Virginia Tech placed 4th overall, elevating the team’s rank as the 4th best performing team in the history of the AIAA Design/Build/Fly competition. The team has achieved seven top five finishes in 28 years.

Design, Build, Fly’s corporate sponsors included Lockheed Martin, Reliable Robotics, Scorpion Power Systems, Composite Envisions, and Electra Aerospace. The team also received financial support from the Student Engineers’ Council and the department of aerospace and ocean engineering.