Instead of brushing up on his Xs and Os in the days before the National Football League’s April 27 to 29 draft, former University of Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs was assisting college aeronautics teammates during the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) competition in Tucson, Arizona. During draft week the aerospace engineering major who was selected in the fourth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers was instead focused on his senior engineering project to design, build, and fly a miniature folding-wing aircraft in the AIAA competition sponsored by aviation powerhouses Cessna and Raytheon.
The competition in the desert was as fierce as any Southeastern Conference football game; 754 students went down to the wire to fabricate an aircraft strong enough to carry a payload of hockey pucks around a 3,000-foot-long flight course for several laps. Results for the 74 teams participating were based on written designs, demonstrated performance, and cost—which included the aircraft itself plus its launch tube.
“They’re going to the tube design for unmanned operations, so the goal is to go as small as possible,” Dobbs explained to AOPA before leaving his parents’ home in Alpharetta, Georgia, to attend a Pennsylvania NFL mini-camp. “For us, we really pushed the design limits. We literally had to make the aircraft so small that we had to mount the motor on the outside of the plane, and we had to hand-launch [the completed design].”
Tennessee’s team pulled three all-nighters in a row during its mad scramble to make the final cut. “It really tested your patience,” said Dobbs, who has faced a herd of 300-pound linebackers bearing down on him, but nothing like the pressure he experienced in Tucson, which was part of the final grade in his University of Tennessee aerodynamics class.
“We got there on a Wednesday night and we worked all Thursday morning to pass the ground inspection, then we worked all night to prep for the next day’s flight. Our team woke up early Friday to try and fly but we crashed twice and needed to make repairs. So, we got up early again and spent all day fixing the plane from our second crash. When we finally got up to the line Saturday we crashed again, then it was straight to back to the hotel.” They worked through the night making tedious repairs to the minuscule aircraft, which Dobbs explained was a physical challenge itself.
After making repairs that took until 4 a.m. on the final day of the desert competition, “We finally had the whole plane ready to go at 10 a.m. and all we had to do was fix the wing hinging mechanism. Well, it took five hours to fix it and then we go to flight line to make the throw [from the launch tube] and the hinge breaks!” he exclaimed. “It wasn’t a major repair this time and we were able to fix the mechanism and we got some successful flights after that.”
He said one of the challenges during the contest was the prevailing desert winds, which affected the aircraft’s flight path on the aerial race course. “Because of the strong winds, one of the wings would stall in a turn and we’d crash, and then it was back to the drawing board from there.”
Tennessee beat Stanford, a major powerhouse, and placed a respectable thirtieth in the overall standings. Dobbs said, “It felt good to know that we performed well. If we had two more successful flights into the wind we probably would’ve made the top 10.” He added that Tennessee “beat a lot of teams just because we were able to push the design limits. We’ve never constructed a model airplane before,” and they had no outside help.
They began the Design/Build/Fly project in February and completed two prototypes just in time for the team competition. Dobbs confided that his crew “had no clue” about model airplane construction “until we built them.” The University of Southern California, with students who began training four years prior, won the event. The engineers from Georgia Tech finished second.
Dobbs’ interest in aviation began at a young age. He said his mother and father would arrive at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport two hours before their flights “so I could watch airplanes take off and land.” That interest led to a Tuskegee Airmen Inc. summer aviation camp in seventh grade that Dobbs credits with pointing him toward a career in aerospace engineering.
“We’d meet and go on aviation field trips each day. One day we went to Dobbins Air Reserve base and toured the military aircraft. We’d watch pilots take off, make laps around the airport and perform touch and goes,” he recalled. The youth camp visited Gwinnett County’s Briscoe Field Airport at the end of the week, “and you got to go up in a two-seater or a four-seater airplane and handle the controls.”
The general aviation experience as a youth prompted Dobbs to tell his father that he would like to one day pursue his pilot certificate. “When I have more time [after college and professional football], I’ll look into that with him.”
Dobbs, an only child, said his “mom and dad always did a great job of pushing me towards different camps or experiences. I was able to be a part of other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) camps growing up. I pushed myself to take advanced placement physics and math courses. It all comes full circle when you get to college.”
AOPA recognizes the importance of building the pilot community through a variety of programs that make flying safe, fun, and affordable. AOPA’s Aviation High School Initiative, which is part of the association’s You Can Fly umbrella program, helps build and sustain aviation-based STEM programs in high schools in order to provide a quality workforce to the aviation industry.
The 6-foot, 3-inch-tall, 216-pound Tennessee standout compiled a 23-12 starting record and set school records for career rushing yards and rushing touchdowns by a quarterback as well as single-season records for both.
Regarding football, ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay said Dobbs was the best pick the Steelers made in 2017. He was drafted number 135 in Round 4, and the network’s television analysts said Dobbs was “as brilliant as they come” and “got better and better in the post-season.”
When asked to compare aviation to sports, Dobbs said there basically is no comparison. Some football commentators have asked him ridiculous questions—including one personality who queried how the aerospace engineer could tackle a “complicated” NFL play book.
“They have no idea, I mean they’ve never sat in an aerodynamics class or a propulsion class” where discussions begin on a high level and quickly get stratospheric. “The goal in football is as simple as possible, go 10 yards in three plays and score a touchdown. There is no need to make it more complicated than that.”
A common question that Dobbs fields pertains to the path a football takes through the air once it leaves his outstretched hand. “A lot of people ask me if I think about aerodynamics when throwing the football and I say, ‘No.’ It’s a stretch for aerodynamics and football on the throw. Where it [aerodynamics] does come into play is in your study habits and you can transfer that experience to the film room” that NFL players use to prepare for their opponents.
“In engineering, you have to spend a lot of time behind the scene in the library studying, so there are a lot of correlations between a successful engineer and a successful quarterback. At the end of the day you are a problem solver in both worlds because you are thinking critically under pressure, and figuring solutions in a short of amount of time.”
Off the field, Dobbs has impressed many as an all-around good guy and someone who others look to for encouragement. He has shopped for underprivileged families, acted as a spokesperson for the disease alopecia, and made regular visits to hospitals and charity events.
He recently held a youth football camp in Tennessee and gave out scholarships to local kids that couldn’t afford it. “I took them to Academy Sports because it was an opportunity to get them a brand-new set of cleats, a workout outfit, and other athletic supplies. My goal has always been to give back to the community, and especially to the less fortunate.” Dobbs also assisted with relief efforts during the devastating November wildfires in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Because of his community and athletic accomplishments, the athlete was conferred the University of Tennessee’s Torchbearer, the highest honor bestowed upon a student.
During an April guest television appearance on Gruden’s QB Camp series, Dobbs handed host Jon Gruden a donation and complimented Gruden for giving “a lot back to the game.” A surprised Gruden said, “You’re a hell of a guy, man. You are a legitimate rocket scientist, I mean how do you not like this guy?”
Remembering the AIAA aviation competition and the grade he needed to complete his college degree, Dobbs said he hoped the sleepless nights and around-the-clock effort earned the Tennessee aerodynamics team “enough to get an A” for their course.
With the model aircraft competition completed and the NFL pre-season just a few short weeks away, Dobbs said he was switching gears to “concentrate on football” and new horizons.
“Of course, I want to make the most of my NFL career, but I’m excited about what the future holds and I’ll definitely maintain contact in the aerospace world.”