Ask Marcello Napolitano about aircraft safety, and you get a detailed explanation of his research.
Ask him about his West Virginia University students, and you get a litany of praise of their abilities and accomplishments.
Ask him about himself, and you get, well, not much.
Nothing about his skills as a musician, an artist, a creator, a thinker.
Nothing about how his research saves lives.
Nothing about the many teaching awards he’s received.
Ask others about Napolitano, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor in WVU’s Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, however, and you get an outpouring of praise – even for his homework assignments.
“It’s homework that really challenges you to think about what you’re learning. I like that,” says Trenton Larrabee, a first-year master’s student in mechanical and aerospace engineering from New Cumberland.
“I also like the fact that the homework has real value for what we’re doing. In one class, we built a flight simulator,” he recalled. “It’s kind of a basic one, but that was cool to take what we were learning and not just say, ‘Here’s the equations.’ We implemented it and actually built something, so that was really cool.”
Colleague and friend David Martinelli describes Napolitano as a thinker who defies categorization: a musical prodigy, able to play most any song he’s ever heard on the piano from memory (he spent several months as a piano bar musician in New York City before going to Oklahoma State University to pursue his doctorate); he draws, paints and loves landscaping work with his wife Teresa. On a sunny weekend day, he can be found riding his Vespa or Aprilia scooter, which he calls “the Italian jewels.”
Scientists are typically categorized as either modelers or experimentalists, Martinelli said. Modelers acquire data through number-based systems using complex equations; experimentalists use physical replications of systems for the same purpose.
Napolitano, Martinelli says, has mastered both approaches.
“One of the many things I admire about Marcello is that he’s truly a left-brain, right-brain thinker,” Martinelli said. “This gives him the ability to do some amazing research where a keen vision and sound analytics are applied.
“Marcello doesn’t just have a balance between creative and analytical – he has an abundance,” he said. “He’s very, very strong in both, and unlike anybody I know.”
His accomplishments as an educator have not gone unrecognized. Over the years, he has won numerous teaching awards from the University – Outstanding Researcher in the Statler College and the WVU Foundation Outstanding Teacher award just to mention a few. Most recently he was named Professor of the Year by the West Virginia Faculty Merit Foundation, which included a $10,000 cash award and a chance to win a national award.
“Dr. Napolitano is certainly one of our very best,” WVU President Jim Clements said. “I am extremely pleased that he is being recognized for his outstanding teaching and research as well as his dedication over the years. The comments from his students say it all, and underscore the huge difference our faculty members make in the lives of our students and the quality of our University.”
You won’t get any disagreements.
“He’s a great colleague and his personality makes him able to relate to every kind of student,” says Martinelli, a professor of civil engineering, who has worked with Napolitano for almost two decades and has collaborated with him on several research projects.
Amanda McGrail, a master’s student from Steubenville, Ohio, says Napolitano excels in conveying complicated subjects related to aircraft flight into understandable terms.
“In class, he takes an incredibly complex subject and breaks it down piece by piece into what we understand,” she said. “As we get farther and farther through the class, he starts introducing real life examples of aviation accidents that had a particular cause that relates to what we’re talking about at the time. And for me, and my research, every time I get stuck he’s able to point me back in the right direction.”
Napolitano’s textbook, Aircraft Dynamics: From Modeling to Simulation, has already been adopted by numerous academic institutions despite having been released just six months ago.
But true to his creative thinking, a textbook is just one facet of his educational tools.
His top tool is the MAE Flight Simulation Laboratory, which he created with WVU colleague Dr. Mario Perhinschi. The center is used for teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in the area of flight dynamics, flight simulations and flight controls, determining the many different classes of failures on aircraft. The technologies are part of full flight test development programs within NASA and the Air Force.
Shortly after joining the WVU faculty in 1990, Napolitano started developing a fleet of remote-control model planes to get a better feel for aircraft failures and other flight-related issues. The planes are programmed and tested at an airstrip at WVU’s Jackson’s Mill.
Over the past two decades, Napolitano has become a global expert in flight controls research, undertaking more than 40 research projects, funded by NASA and agencies within the Department of Defense. He’s also involved in state-funded research that explores civil applications of unmanned aerial vehicles, such as surveying roads during flooding or to assist cities with traffic control.
His research team is composed of approximately 15 faculty and students, including research assistant professors, graduate students and undergraduate students.
“We have a lot more capabilities than other groups do in terms of experimental research,” said Matthew Rhudy, a doctoral mechanical and aerospace student from Allentown, Pa.
Napolitano started building his fleet because he felt limited by computer simulations.
“If you work in the area of flight control, you develop flight schemes and software that you think are going to save an aircraft from crashing,” he said. “You reach a point where computer simulation is not going to be enough. At a certain point I felt the need for some technology demonstration, some form of physical system that I can show to someone where it could help to save the plane. In the early ’90s, I made this transition.
“I was just fortunate to work with an incredibly talented pool of students here at WVU,” he added. “Some of them are still with us and are now key researchers in our Flight Control System Laboratory.”
Napolitano’s program, highlighted by the flight simulation research, is now a signature program at the University and a key draw for students.
“I am proud I developed something that WVU is now known for, something that our students can really look up to and something that contributes to the legacy of WVU,” he said.