seal  Purdue News

December 16, 2003

Purdue students design motorized towbar for pilots

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue University mechanical engineering students want to capitalize on a whole generation of aging baby boomer pilots who are simply getting too old to manually tow their planes around the airport.

towbar lifting Cessna
Download photo - caption below

The students have designed, built and tested an electric "towbar" that enables pilots to easily move and park their planes. Otherwise, pilots have to muscle their planes into place with a manual towbar or have someone at the airport use a tractor-like towing vehicle, said John Nolfi, a mechanical engineer who taught the senior-design course this semester in which the students created the towbar.

Students in Nolfi's product-engineering course not only had to design the towbar so that it operated safely, but they also had to demonstrate that a market exists for such a product.

"Their market analysis demonstrated that the average person who owns an airplane in the U.S. is about 50 years old and that there are a lot of pilots who can't tow an airplane by themselves anymore," said Nolfi, who counts himself among flyers in that age category.

The electric towbar is about six feet long and two feet wide. It uses two 12-volt batteries to power a one-horsepower motor. The towbar has a mechanism that, once slid into position, cradles and lifts the nose wheel of the airplane. After the wheel is lifted off of the ground, the operator uses controls to move the plane forward or backward, said Nolfi, manager of Purdue's Product Engineering and Realization Laboratory. The lab helps to prepare engineering students for the real world by teaching them how to work together on project teams to develop new products.

Nolfi can speak to journalists about the possible commercial applications of the towbar.

Writer: Emil Venere, (765) 494-4709,

Source: John Nolfi, (765) 496-7869,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

Students Tim Antcliff, right, a Purdue mechanical engineering senior from Grand Rapids, Mich., and mechanical engineering senior Dave Hostetler, under the plane, from Muncie, Ind., guide their prototype electric-powered "towbar" under the nose wheel of a Cessna 152. Once in place, the mechanism lifts the plane's wheel, and private pilots can use electric controls to move and park their planes. The students, as part of a senior design class project, did a market analysis and then designed, built and tested the towbar prototype. (Purdue University News Service photo/David Umberger)

* To the Purdue News and Photos Page