Aircrafts and Wind Turbines have one thing in common, dealing with the wind and its unpredictability. And thats what makes Aerodynamics, or the science of air flow, a fascinating area !
Subharchan Kundu, our next pathbreaker, works on Aircraft Design for one of the largest commercial Aircraft manufacturers in the world, by enhancing Aerodynamics to improve flight characteristics.
Subharchan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about pursuing Aeronautics for its inter-disciplinary nature which brings together multiple fields like mechanical, fluid dynamics, mathematics and product design to make the cabin as smooth as possible at 35000 ft.
For students, a career in Aerodynamics is for those who want to take the challenge of pitting their engineering prowess against the raw power of the wind whether it is flight wing blades, wind turbines or automotives.
Subharchan, tell us about your background?
Let me start with my background. I was born and brought up in the suburbs of Kolkata(then Calcutta). Like many Kolkata kids of the 90’s, I also grew up with a dream of participating in the Kolkata football league. Remember, Dada didn’t arrive in the national cricket team then and ISL!! Nobody thought of that those days.
Our practice ground was just below Kolkata airport’s approach .But hold on, that is not the reason for my contribution to building those Aircrafts today; it is just a coincidence.
One day (during my early high school days) my parents asked me to make a choice between the ball and the ball-pen. They were ok with any of my decisions but explained to me clearly the risk associated with both. I chose the second option at that time. I was not sure if I made the right decision. However, what is important is, I took a “DECISION”.
That matters the most. At some point of time, all of us will stand alone when one has to take his/her own decision. The earlier you develop this capability the better it is, irrespective of whatever profession you would like to choose.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
So enough of philosophy. Now coming to the point of what I studied, I did my engineering (bachelors) in Aeronautics. Initially I had to choose this specialization after optimizing different parameters but Aeronautics slowly became my passion.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
During my study, I realized the complexity of Aeronautics in terms of both physics and involvement of multiple disciplines. As such Aeronautical engineering is a super set of many fields e.g. mechanical + fluid dynamics + numerical mathematics + product design + software + navigation management etc. All these together make the cabin as smooth as our drawing room at 35000 ft. Although shifting to the software field looks lucrative in many ways but for me Aeronautics can deliver much more. There are very few in this world who can “make things fly”— the dream of mankind.
I wanted to pursue my higher studies after that, but could not continue my studies due to circumstances. At that point of time, I took a decision to postpone my higher studies to a few years down the line, but that never happened.
Here is another learning for you all, you may not win every decision in life but that’s absolutely fine. Only a decision can take you to the next step and you will get enough opportunities to correct that. But if you do not take any decision, you will be stuck in the same place for long and will lose the precious gift of nature, time.
In the initial years, I was lucky to get in direct touch with some key names of the Indian aeronautics industry. I learnt a lot from them.
Aeronautics is a niche field. There are advantages and disadvantages. Although opportunities are limited, so are candidates(at least in our days). In our field most of us know each other either by name or face. The best way to enter in this field is via govt organizations like NAL, HAL,DRDO etc. All of them recruit entry level candidates almost regularly (even off campus). These are the good places to start the learning journey. Here you make learning a habit. If one can’t bag a job in a govt lab, a project assistant position is also good. Internships are also available. Once you are in, you will quickly get in touch with many big names by default.
I worked for a startup also in between where I understood how technology and business merge.
Then I joined one of the major civil aircraft manufacturers and trust me the learning still continues.
My next message is, never stop learning irrespective of your career choice and position. Otherwise you will never sustain.
Tell us about your career path
I joined National Aeronautics Laboratory as project trainee through a 6 month contract, where I was involved in CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) preprocessor development. This was my first real world experience where my knowledge from textbooks was used for an application.
Initial jobs, like what I did in NAL, can help you to connect books with practical experience. E.g, we know that lift is mandatory for an Aircraft to fly but what are the different techniques to capture the lift at design phase?? What is state of the art? I learnt those in NAL. Since this is an ever evolving field, fresh brains and ideas are always valued. In my job we tried to speed up the prediction.
Then I joined DRDO. I worked in applied aerodynamics on a very complicated configuration. I understood that everything is not there in the textbook and that’s why we have engineers. Remember, understand the risk , take decisions and proceed..
Here I worked on a multi physics problem and Fighter Aircraft design is one step up. Here you have to take care of integration aspects of multiple systems at a bigger level. How different systems interact and influence each other is a mystery in any new design unless or until it is tested by any means.
Then I worked for a startup. It was a high pressure environment where I had end to end ownership of deliverables. Most importantly, the work I did was important for business. I understood that “best” is only best in the overall context. If the best design is too costly to afford, there will be no buyers for that.
Although we always think about Aircrafts when we discuss about Aeronautical Engineering, many of us work in the field of wind turbines. This innovation will help mankind sustain for a few more million years, thanks to us!! Surprised?!! The principal of an Aircraft wing and wind turbine blades are the same; they generate forces if I talk simply in terms of physics. But the challenges are completely different. Hence success lies in operational efficiency.
Have you ever thought about this? Why don’t we have wind turbines in all our houses to save electric bill? I got the answer during my work here. Principally it is possible but you may end up paying more than what you usually pay even if you stay in a windy region.
After that I moved to one of the major civil aircraft manufacturers. I have transitioned across several skill groups here and continue on my learning path and I am still learning!!
How did you get your first break?
My first job was with DRDO, it was a Govt of India procedure. You have to clear a written exam, followed by a very tough interview panel.
I got my first job off campus and to be honest, getting campus recruitment in the Aeronautics field is difficult unless or until you are from a premium institute. But at the same time, govt labs have enough opportunities where you can learn further and prepare yourself for available jobs.
The following jobs were basically a function of the skills that I developed in the past years. This will be true for everybody, so keep learning.
What were the challenges? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Aeronautics is a niche skill. So, the number of people in this field are less and so are the opportunities. So initially I didn’t get many choices. I took the best offer I had.
Challenge 2: This is a field of high-end mathematics and multi-physics. Without an advanced degree, I found it difficult in the initial days, but I put in additional efforts to cover that gap.
Challenge 3: India as a country doesn’t have enough history in Aeronautics Design. We are hardly the first or second generation of Aeronautical engineers. So, unless or until you get a good mentor (I was very lucky) it will be difficult.
Tell us about your current work?
However, in general, Aircraft design is a Multiphysics problem and work largely depends on numerical mathematics. Although physics doesn’t change but the product does and so does its interface.
So, you have to keep on learning so that you can provide new solutions. Luckily my job gives me opportunity for that and that’s what I enjoy the most.
The challenge for any aero engineer is to increase the performance of the product. For Aircrafts, it means either reduce weight or improve aerodynamics from a purely engineering point of view. Or to accelerate the design speed. These involve either improving our understanding of the design or defining new methods/processes to design faster/qualitatively better Aircrafts .This is all we do irrespective of whether it is for wind turbines/ fighter jets or civil aviation world.
How does your work benefit society?
At the moment we are in the middle of a worldwide lockdown and I think everyone on this planet realizes the importance of “people to people connect”.
I am happy that I can contribute to that part. Reducing carbon footprint is – A cherry on top of the cake.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I will not look back or share any technical achievements here, but rather talk about my best moments when I was involved in CSR activities.
It is always important to give back to society in whatever way we can.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Knowledge matters of course, but what also matters is soft skills, whether it is leadership ability, public speaking skills or the ability to work with people. Keep building them from high school days.
Keep learning; be ready to adapt even in the uncertain future. That is the best plan for me; ever!!