Viterbi top guns and their need for speed

Three Viterbi students pose in front of their 8-foot plane
From left to right: Class of 2022 Viterbi graduates Diana Salcedo-Pierce, Mikell Myers and Jackson Markow/Photo Courtesy Chandrea Miller

BY Chandrea Miller

They didn’t want to drive because flying is more their thing. Still 1,400 miles and 26 hours later, a van filled with members of the USC AeroDesign Team (ADT) arrived in Wichita, Kan.

“The plane we were entering into the competition had both a wingspan and length of 8 feet, which is the max size for checked luggage,” said recent Viterbi graduate and ADT chief engineer Jackson Markow. “So, we had to drive to get there.”

From back to front, left to right: Mikell Myers, Jack Ahrens, Jackson Markow, and Angus Turnor/Photo Courtesy Michael Tawata

There, being the Textron Aviation Wichita Service Center and the host location of the 26th  American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Design/Build/Fly competition. Since 1996, the objective of the 2022 AIAA Design/Build/Fly contest has been to challenge students to design, fabricate, and demonstrate flight capabilities of an unmanned, electric powered, radio-controlled aircraft. Each new year, the contest is updated with new design requirements and performance objectives.

This year’s contest attracted 69 teams from top universities all over the world, including USC’s AeroDesign Team. A team that has taken first place three times at the annual fly-off.

USC AeroDesign Team preps their plane inside the Wichita hangar/Photo Courtesy Michael Tawata

Following their cross-country journey from Los Angeles to Wichita, Markow felt tired, but wide awake with excitement.

“We’ve worked really hard for the past year and designed a really competitive aircraft,” Markow said. “We all love airplanes, we love things that fly, we love rockets, and we love designing things from our own minds.”

The 2022 USC ADT was made up of nearly 30 students who were looking to gain hands-on experience by applying textbook principles to real-world situations at the AIAA competition.

2022 USC AeroDesign Team/Photo Courtesy Michael Tawata

Logistics Manager Mikell Myers has been on the student-led team since his freshman year and calls the firsthand experience invaluable.

“I don’t come from a family of engineers,” Myers said. “There’s that separation between knowledge and application and that’s what I’ve found in the AeroDesign team: I can take what I’ve learned, and I can turn it into something usable and feasible and really apply it.”

The customized mission for the 2022 fly-off was to design, build and test an aircraft to deliver vaccination components. Missions over the three-day contest included deployment of the aircraft, staging of vaccination syringes, and delivery of environmentally sensitive vaccine vial packages.

Diana Salcedo-Pierce who served as the program manager said this competition involved a myriad of challenges.

“Our team had to fly as many syringes as possible in three laps in under ten minutes,” Salcedo-Pierce said. “We also were required to turn in a report of our plane’s design, so the competition was composed of a report score and motion score.”

AeroDesign Team’s plane flying during AIAA competition/Video Courtesy Michael Tawata

However, the USC students all agreed that no matter their score in the competition, the real prize was the classmate comradery.

From left to right: Jack Ahrens, who will serve as next year’s chief engineer, and current chief engineer Jackson Markow carry out their plane to the starting line/Photo Courtesy Michael Tawata

“The competition is part of it, but there’s the getting to know your classmates, making friends, building up a network and knowing people both in school and the really great alumni network,” Markow said. “Also, getting involved in the fabric of the engineering community and, especially, the aerospace engineering community, which is a small one.”

At the 2022 AIAA competition, the USC AeroDesign Team took fourth place, but first place in their future careers.

Jackson Markow/Photo Courtesy Chandrea Miller

This summer, the team’s chief engineer, Jackson Markow, worked for the San Francisco based company Zipline that develops medical delivery drones that drop off life-saving blood supplies and vaccines in places all over the world from the United States to Africa. Jackson said he’s also interested in small satellites and space. “I see myself starting my own company,” Markow said. “I’m interested in structural analysis and performance analysis, skills that I’ve learned at USC.”

Mikell Myers/Photo Courtesy Chandrea Miller

Mikell Myers, who served as the team’s logistics manager, said he has accepted a job at Jacobs engineering in his home state of Maryland and explained that he was hired in part for his expertise in propulsion systems–“I’m invested in making people go,” he said.

Diana Salcedo-Pierce/Photo Courtesy Chandrea Miller

The USC ADT program manager, Diana Salcedo-Pierce, accepted a job at Lockheed Martin as a flight test engineer. “I couldn’t believe I got the offer,” she said. “My parents are from Mexico and my mom got her master’s degree there, but my dad didn’t go to college. I’m the first in my family to graduate from college in the United States.”

The recent Viterbi graduates said their hands-on experience on the USC AeroDesign Team offered a competitive advantage when applying for aerospace jobs.

“When you get educated, people say they also want you to have experience as well,” Myers said. “And now I have that experience because of my time on this team.”

The 2023 AIAA Design/Build/Fly will be held at Tucson International Modelplex Park Association in Tucson, Ariz. The tentative dates are April 13-16, 2023. 

For more information on joining the USC AeroDesign Team, please visit the program page at