Change the world

School of Engineering


Mechanical Engineering senior lecturer Dr Russell Phillips has turned a lifelong passion for both aviation and invention into a light aircraft. His Whisper X recently graced the cover of popular aviation magazine SA Flyer. This is the second aircraft to be designed and built by Russell, 49, who also has several noteworthy inventions in the renewable energy field, including the “twerly”, a “green” street light completely powered by wind and solar energy, which is being commercialised. He is also patenting a new type of wind turbine with segmented blades for more efficient wind harvesting.

Russell’s first aircraft was the Whisper motor glider in 2004. Both planes are sold as “kits” which flying enthusiasts can purchase to put together themselves. “Other people watch TV, I build things, fix things and invent things,” says Russell, who built most of the Whisper X in the garage of his Walmer home. “I’m an inventor during the day and after hours.”

Russell, who has been flying since he was in standard eight (Grade 10) built his first plane in 1984, when he was a second year student at the former Port Elizabeth Technikon. “I’ve owned 35 aeroplanes and built more than half of them. Some were kits, some were planes I restored.” It was only a matter of time before this self-proclaimed “aviation fanatic” built his own.

“The Whisper X is not unique or aero-dynamically different. It’s a combination of all the features that I like in planes that I’m familiar with.”The plane project has consumed most of his free time since 2008, but he has also been able to bring certain aspects into the classroom. “One of the subjects I teach is CAD (Computer-Aided Design) and I often bring in components [of the plane] to show students it’s not just a page in a book, but a real part in an aeroplane ... I don’t just teach, I do – and I believe this helps my teaching,” says Russell, who has won several NMMU teaching awards over the years. The plane is a composite (made from glass fibre-reinforced plastics) and students are able to use aspects of the structural design process as classroom examples. This exposure to composites helped in establishing the university’s first composites lab, which was used to produce the university’s unique solar car last year. “Airbus and Boeing are using more and more composite parts, with each new model that comes out. This will be the material of choice for high tech manufacturers in the future.”

The Whisper X is a similar design to the non-composite RV, which is the most popular “home built” in the world with over 8 000 flying worldwide, but Russell has designed his aircraft to outrun the slower RV, with a top speed of over 300km/h. Instead of the traditional “round gauges” in the cockpit to show speed and altitude, there is place for an iPad, which takes care of all the electronics at the touch of a screen. “There is less wiring, less complexity and less expense,” says Russell. “Most airliners today also have glass cockpits.”

Throughout the building process, the Whisper X was inspected and approved – but the first flight in his creation was still “terrifying”. “It’s a high performance, very fast aeroplane. If anything had gone wrong, it could have been fatal hence every precaution was taken”, says Russell, who is also a test pilot. NW