Emma Timson, 23, is nine months into a PhD, as a member of a flight science and technology research group at the University of Liverpool, whose work centres on standards for helicopter flight simulators.

How did you come to do this PhD?

In the fourth year of my MEng in aerospace engineering at Liverpool, I did a course that was called flight handling qualities, and we had hands-on experience using the university's simulator, which can be configured to behave like 40 different aircraft. My project was to come up with improved control systems for a Black Hawk helicopter, and an ex-military pilot came in to test what I had done.

Had you been interested in this area since childhood?

My parents worked at East Midlands airport, so I was at the airport a lot when I was young. At school, I was into maths, physics and design, which were my A-levels. I always intended to go along the design route. I thought about architecture, but I'm glad I chose engineering.

What's the title of your PhD?

It's called simulation fidelity for rotorcraft design, certification and pilot training.

Why is this an important area?

At the moment, for fixed-wing aircraft, you can get a licence without flying in a real aircraft. This is called zero-flight-time training, but because of the more complicated dynamics of helicopters, this can't be done for helicopters. Our research is working to improve flight simulators for rotorcraft (helicopters are the main example), so that the helicopter industry can move towards zero-flight-time training. This would be a good thing, because at the moment, a high percentage of accidents happen during training, particularly in the military, so if more training can be done in simulators, accidents will be prevented. Another aim is to improve the confidence in helicopter simulators generally, so that changes can be made, and tested, on simulators rather than operational aircraft. That will also save time and money.

So, what do you do on a daily basis?

My time is split in two. I'm mainly at my desk analysing flight-test data, from a research helicopter in Canada. Based on that data, I design new mathematical models (flight representations) for the aircraft, and make corresponding changes to our simulator. These changes then get tested on our simulator by real pilots.

What do you enjoy about it?

Coming across new knowledge is the reason for doing a PhD, and I have brilliant equipment to work on at Liverpool. Plus, it's always nice meeting pilots, because they're quite fun people. And the great thing about working in this research group is that I get to experience flying the simulator. I can go in there to fly around to my heart's content and fall out of the sky.

As a woman, are you a rarity in this field?

Actually, no. When I started at Liverpool, women made up only 5 per cent of all engineering students, but by the time I finished my degree, there were four girls out of 19 who graduated with an MEng. And now, out of three PhD students in my field here, two of us are girls.

How are you funding the PhD?

I've got four years' funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which, after tuition fees, amounts to about £13,000 a year.

And what are your plans when you finish?

Well, I want to stay working in this field, either by getting a place in industry, doing research and development, or continuing along an academic path.

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