AIAA Member Spotlight – October 2018 Written 12 October 2018

AIAA Profiles AIAA Fellow Karl D. Bilimoria

By Michele McDonald, AIAA communications manager

Karl BilimoriaAIAA Fellow Karl D. Bilimoria can trace the roots of his career as an aerospace engineer to his childhood visits to Air India. 

“I have been fascinated by airplanes for as long as I can remember, even in very early childhood,” said Bilimoria, an aerospace engineer for more than two decades at NASA Ames Research Center. “I grew up in Mumbai, India, where my father worked in the engineering department of Air India. During visits to the airport, I spent many pleasant hours watching airplanes come and go. 

“I also had several opportunities to sit in the cockpit jump seat during long international flights. These positive childhood experiences enhanced my inherent interest in airplanes and started me along the path to a career in aerospace engineering. 

Bilimoria’s path has led him to fly on NASA aircraft as a flight test engineer and be chosen as a finalist for the 1996 Astronaut Candidate Selection. As an engineer in the Flight Trajectory Dynamics and Controls branch at NASA Ames, he is a group lead for NASA research on advanced systems for air traffic flow management and has worked in the areas of air traffic management, spacecraft handling qualities, and space traffic management. He brings a wealth of experience as the Editor-in-Chief of AIAA’s newest journal, the two-year-old Journal of Air Transportation

Bilimoria became an AIAA Associate Fellow in 1995 and a Fellow in 2017. He’s received numerous AIAA awards, including the Sustained Service Award in 2005 and the Aerospace Software Engineering Award in 2009, in addition to the NASA Exceptional Technology Achievement Medal for his research on airborne self-separation. He is a co-inventor of the Future Air traffic management Concepts Evaluation Tool (FACET), which has received two U.S. patents, the NASA Government Invention of the Year Award, the NASA Software of the Year Award, and the FAA Excellence in Aviation Research Award. 

“Each award was memorable in its own way because each of them recognized a different aspect or phase of my career as an aerospace engineer,” Bilimoria said of the AIAA awards.  

“However, becoming an AIAA Fellow was a very special honor because it elevated me to a peer group of distinguished aerospace professionals for whom I have had great respect and admiration for many years.” 

Becoming a Fellow became a goal of Bilimoria’s in 1983 when he joined AIAA as a graduate student of aerospace engineering at Virginia Tech

“One of my professors had just been elected as an AIAA Fellow, and many people were talking about it as a very significant achievement. This inspired me to set a long-term career goal of becoming an AIAA Fellow, so I joined AIAA as a Student Member and have continued my membership ever since.” 

His expertise includes both aeronautics and astronautics, bringing a valuable perspective to each area that has informed his research. He’s worked on various aspects of air traffic management, with the goal of safely increasing the efficiency of the national airspace system, and has spent considerable time studying air traffic operations at FAA facilities as well as airline dispatch operations centers. On the space side he’s studied spacecraft handling qualities “with the goal of developing a knowledge base to guide the design of flight control systems and cockpit displays for the next generation of piloted spacecraft.” 

Bilimoria’s team conducted several experiments on a high-fidelity motion flight simulator, studying a variety of piloting tasks such as powered-descent lunar landing, docking with the International Space Station, and atmospheric entry of a capsule spacecraft. More than 30 astronauts from the Space Shuttle and Apollo programs participated in these experiments. 

“Working closely with these astronauts, I gained some important insights about the design of engineering systems that can assist manual piloting of spacecraft,” he said. 

Bilimoria made his own connection with space when he became a finalist in the 1996 NASA Astronaut Candidate Selection. Although visual acuity standards eventually disqualified him, becoming a finalist was an honor. “The entire process was a very memorable experience,” he said. “It also gave me some important insights about human space exploration, and sparked interest in seeking opportunities to work in the space branch of aerospace engineering. My work experience until that time was primarily in aeronautics.” 

Bilimoria’s association with AIAA has helped his career, making connections that last. For example, while serving as a member of the AIAA Air Transportation Systems Technical Committee, he worked on AIAA activities with a committee member from the FAA. 

“A few years later, coincidentally, we were appointed as co-leads of a NASA-FAA research transition team,” he recalled. “Since we already knew and respected each other professionally, we were able to quickly start up our project activities without any need for a get-acquainted period. This enabled us to work collaboratively in a very efficient and productive manner, which enhanced the success of our research effort.” 

As Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Air Transportation, Bilimoria wants to bring high-quality air transportation research to the forefront and invites authors to submit their papers. “We have also invited and published award-winning papers from one of the premier international air traffic management conferences, and plan to extend this outreach to other conferences,” he said.  

Bilimoria sees several transformative technologies happening now, including new categories of aircraft that range from small package delivery drones to urban air taxis carrying a few passengers. 

“Due to the nature of the use cases of these aircraft, they will be deployed in large numbers, and the technological challenge is to ensure they can safely share the airspace with conventional aircraft while maintaining the efficiency of all flight operations,” he said. “Another area that has recently seen renewed interest is the development of the next generation of supersonic passenger aircraft. There is significant ongoing technology development on various fronts, including NASA’s X-59 low-boom flight demonstrator. Widespread use of commercially and environmentally viable supersonic passenger aircraft would transform long-distance air travel in much the same way as the transition from piston-props to jets.” 

It’s an exciting time in aerospace, giving students many choices. Bilimoria advises students to follow career interests that motivate them. 

“If you are fascinated by the technical aspects of flight, then a career in aerospace engineering is most likely a good option,” he said. “Within the aerospace field, there are numerous topics compatible with a wide range of interests in both aeronautics and space.” 

And AIAA can help. “As you progress along your career path, it is helpful to have a professional support system. AIAA membership is an important element of such a support system because it provides extensive opportunities for learning, networking, and service that provide value in all phases of an aerospace career.”