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A dream, a Dragonfly, and the hope for a better ferry

Dragonfly prototype test
Ben Anderson testing a prototype of the Dragonfly in the 1990s.

When Philip Whitener first began dreaming of a high-speed, fuel efficient ferry for the Puget Sound region, the first moon landing was a few years away.

After his retirement as a Boeing engineer decades later, he designed his dream, the Dragonfly, and then built and tested a plywood prototype in the 1990s and early 2000s.

At that time, the current seniors in WSU’s mechanical engineering program at Olympic College at Bremerton were still in grade school.

Whitener died last year at 99 years old, but a few days before he died, he handed the Dragonfly and several of his other projects and patents to students, hoping they will improve on his ideas while learning to look even further into the future. WSU students are getting the chance to finish his dreams.

“He really lived 20 years in the future,” said Wendy Hirsch, Whitener’s daughter. “The things that we see now he was working on when I was a kid. “

Whitener began working for the Boeing company in 1941 as a 21-year-old out of college. He was involved in several advanced engineering projects of the twentieth century, including supervising a wind tunnel design, engineering flight tests for the B-52 bomber, managing a hydrofoil project, working with composite materials, and getting involved in supersonic transport. After retiring, he started a company, Advanced Marine Design Concepts LLC. Meanwhile, he kept busy tinkering, redesigning everything from wheelchairs to ferries.

His idea for the Dragonfly was meant as a replacement for walk-on ferries. It combined hydrofoil technology with an air induction system that allowed for a unique air cushion hull.

Working with Bremerton-based Art Anderson Associates, Whitener showed that his prototype vessel could be highly fuel efficient while also not producing a wake, which causes shoreline erosion concerns in the Puget Sound area. Made of lightweight, honeycombed materials, the Dragonfly lifted above the water, gliding gently on the waves.

“I’m not an engineer, but I knew the importance of getting people from Bremerton to Seattle in 10 to 15 minutes with a fast ferry that didn’t create environmental damage,” said Dean Hirsch, Whitener’s son-in-law who helped manage Whitener’s company. “It was a hobby in some ways for him, but his preliminary calculations showed outstanding performance potential.”

Shortly before he died, Whitener was put in touch with the faculty in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering in Bremerton.

“His desire was that he wanted the students at Bremerton to have the same opportunity that he did for creativity and to think outside the box,” said Dean Hirsch.

Students are working on the project as part of their senior capstone course, led by Professor Marvin Pitts. The first cohort of students, Colton Alexander, Ben Drinnon, and Reed Martin, say they were thrilled to take on the project.

“The idea that our senior project could potentially be something we could see later on in our future is pretty cool,” said Alexander.

As part of their project, the students are using software to model the system and to simulate how the boat will perform in water. Because of the unique design of the boat, which includes long struts that stick out from beneath the hull, they have also been working to design a trailer that will allow for it to easily launch. They’ve had to re-think their boat trailer design several times.

“Everything in our trailer design has been one crazy idea after another,” said Alexander. “I don’t even know how many different ideas we’ve had at this point.”

“In the famous words of Thomas Edison, we’ve found a thousand ways not to build a trailer,” Martin added.

Just as Whitener hoped, the project has allowed the students to widen their horizons and to come up with truly unique solutions to engineering challenges. The students have been working with Bremerton-based Art Anderson Associates and with Ben Anderson, who as a teenager actually tested the early prototype of the Dragonfly on the water. Anderson also serves on the advisory board for the WSU at Bremerton mechanical engineering program.

“We’re really having to design unique things because the design we’re dealing with is so out of the box,” Drinnon said. “We’ve had to learn to tackle those obstacles and to roll with the punches.”

Drinnon said the integration of the plenum, or the air cushion, with the hydrofoil technology is what makes the project really unique and fun.

“You’ve seen hydrofoils employed in a lot of ways, but the integration of these two technologies is unique,” he said. “If you look at pictures of the full-sized ferry model that Whitener had, they have pretty funky shapes and designs. They look pretty cool, and the concepts and designs behind them are really exciting.”

“We’ve been able to experience the interaction with marine concepts that we haven’t had yet, and it’s been really informative for us,” he added.

Dragonfly prototype pose
From left to right, Reed Martin, Professor Marvin Pitts, Ben Drinnon, and Colton Alexander with the Dragonfly prototype.

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