CMU's Flying Club visits Rwanda

Kelly Saavedra

Nov 14, 2023

Students at Carnegie Mellon University Africa, eager to kickstart aviation-related activities, reached out to a popular club on CMU’s Pittsburgh campus over the summer to explore collaborations. 

"Students drive many of our initiatives in academia, so it is great to see students from both CMU locations fostering stronger ties built around a shared passion for aviation," says Conrad Tucker, interim director of CMU-Africa.

The Flying Club, whose membership has grown from 30 to 400 faculty, staff and students in its first two years, has become a hub where aviation enthusiasts in the CMU community are sharing resources and experiences to help each other reach their aviation goals. 

Jay Patrikar, a Ph.D. student in the Robotics Institute and the club’s founding president, and Jack Wang, a junior in electrical and computer engineering who teaches a student-taught course (StuCo) for aspiring pilots, were more than happy to connect with students, professors and aviation companies in Rwanda to gauge interest and help determine a path forward.

"This is not just about flying," Patrikar says. "We felt this was an amazing opportunity to bring CMU-Africa and CMU-Pittsburgh together with the shared vision of exploring general aviation and its impact on the communities in Africa."

With plans in place for introductory seminars, workshops and corporate outreach, Wang and Patrikar packed up the flight simulator and took off for a five-day visit to CMU-Africa, located in Rwanda, where they were greeted with an enthusiasm well beyond what they imagined.
"We were expecting maybe ten students at our sessions. We got around 100, which is like 30 percent of the student population there," Wang says. "There were still students standing in line to try the flight simulator when we apologized for having to pack it up or we’d miss our flight home."

Natasha Mutangana, who is pursuing a master of science degree in engineering artificial intelligence at CMU-Africa, said students aren't just interested in flying.

"One thing we learned during Jay and Jack’s visit is that students are also excited to learn about drones and rockets, technologies that are making a big impact on the continent," she says. "Many of us share an interest in aviation, but often it seems too expensive to pursue, which can be discouraging." Mutangana helped organize and participated in several of the club’s engaging events, including The Flying Club’s meet-and-greet; a talk given by a commercial pilot from RwandAir; and visits to Zipline, which uses drones to deliver lifesaving medical supplies to remote area hospitals, and to the Rwanda Space Agency, which is using space technologies and machine learning to create products that help with social and economic development.

"That's exactly what I want to do. I want to contribute to my community by coming up with solutions that solve problems and make a big difference in my country and on my continent," Mutangana says.

Samuel Ebimobowei Johnny, who is from Nigeria and pursuing a master of science degree in information technology at CMU-Africa, attended the two StuCo seminars and the flight simulator activity.

"We had lots of fun," Johnny says. "Getting an understanding of standard weather forecasting was part of what I most appreciated about Jack’s session, and the seminar by Jay, where he explained the four forces that affect an aircraft when it's in the air, was also insightful and entertaining."

Johnny also attended a poster session featuring innovative projects by students working in the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s AiPex lab in Pittsburgh, who were at CMU-Africa that same week. "A flying club could serve as a platform for collaboration and knowledge-sharing among students, inspiring them to think outside the box and push the boundaries of what is possible in aviation," Johnny says.

Natosha Safo, associate director of impact at CMU-Africa, said the master’s programs the location provides prepare students to become technology leaders who are driving the digital transformation of Africa.

"In broadening our efforts to promote exchange between the Kigali and Pittsburgh locations, students are provided an opportunity to learn from and share skills with peers from different backgrounds, which gives students a competitive edge when entering today’s global job market," Safo says. "It also enriches the student experience."

As The Flying Club’s membership continues to surge on the Pittsburgh campus, a pivotal goal on the horizon is the acquisition of a dedicated CMU airplane.

"At the forefront of the club's objectives is the reduction of barriers to entry into aviation for its members,” Patrikar says. "The envisioned CMU airplane is seen as instrumental in enhancing scheduling flexibility and alleviating financial burdens on students, ultimately nurturing a more vibrant and engaged aviation community at CMU."