Sophomore cadet takes on senior-level research

Cadet 3rd Class Young Wu  has maintained a 4.0 GPA while majoring in aeronautics and mathematics. He conducts independent research at the Academy normally reserved for firsties. (U.S. Air Force photo/Amy Gillentine)

Cadet 3rd Class Young Wu has maintained a 4.0 GPA while majoring in aeronautics and mathematics. He conducts independent research at the Academy normally reserved for firsties. (U.S. Air Force photo/Amy Gillentine)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Cadet 3rd Class Young Wu isn't like other sophomores. Not only has he maintained a 4.0 GPA while majoring in aeronautics and mathematics, he conducts independent research normally reserved for firsties. 

Wu's mentor, Aeronautics Department professor Lt. Col. Kurt Rouser, said he's rarely seen Wu's brand of enthusiasm, dedication and intellect that makes the sophomore cadet stand out.

"We had to get a waiver from Aeronautics Department head Col. Neal Barlow for Cadet Wu to take the 499 course," Rouser said. "Sophomores don't normally do this type of independent research, but Wu is the brightest cadet I've worked with."

Wu approached Rouser in the second semester of his first year. He thought he might major in aeronautics and wanted to see wind tunnels and research projects in action.
"We had him shadow the seniors for a while," Rouser said. "But soon he was operating by himself."

Wu's project is in the Cascade Wind Tunnel, working to make jet engine turbines more efficient. Unlike other research wind tunnels at the Academy, the cascade tunnel deals with engines, not aircraft. Because engines can't fit in wind tunnels the same way aircraft models can, Wu can only test parts of engines.

Wu is focusing on the turbine blades and working to perfect the turbulence simulation process for the turbines. The research is sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory with counterparts at Baylor University and the U.S. Naval Academy.

"There aren't many cascade tunnels around," Rouser said. "But they're important for testing the engines and the flow through the turbines."

The experiment uses a turbulence grid of Rouser's own design. The patent-pending process creates an even distribution of turbulence across the engine blades, more closely mimicking the airflow in a full-size engine.

"For aircraft flying at high altitude and low speeds, the engines experience flow separation in the turbines," Rouser said. "We don't want that. We want the flow to stay attached; otherwise it reduces the range and endurance of the aircraft."

The key, Wu said, is to investigate the blade angles and turbulence intensity to evaluate methods for suppressing flow separation when airplanes, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, fly slow and high.

"We're comparing our results to Baylor's and to the Naval Academy," he said.
Wu frequently comes in on weekends and after hours, and his efforts are paying off.

His data will be added to research performed by firsties last fall. He'll publish a research paper this year as part of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics student paper competition.

"We won last year, so you can see this is a great opportunity for him, being published, having data included in a paper," Rouser said. "That's a big deal for a sophomore."
Wu, a native of San Jose, Calif., downplays Rouser's praise.

"You have so much opportunity open to you at the Academy," he said. "It's opportunity available to all the cadets. And where else can an undergraduate do this kind of work? Research like this is reserved for graduate students in other colleges."

Academic rigor is just one reason Wu chose the Academy.

"I'd like to fly," he said. "That's the main goal. It's why I wanted to major in aeronautics."

Wu said he choose Rouser's cascade project because it's more hands on.

"In the other wind tunnels, lab technicians set up the experiment and start up the tunnel. You're just standing by to collect data. Here, I get to operate it myself."
But not without Rouser's help. As a sophomore, Wu doesn't have access to the labs normally reserved for juniors and seniors.

"I have to unlock it for him," Rouser says. "But he does everything else himself. It's a complicated process to get it up and running; there are a lot of moving parts, a lot of things to check."

The practical experience helps Wu understand his academic classes.

"I can see the practical that comes from the theoretical concepts," he said. "It's not just problems in a text book. If I see something happen in the wind tunnel, it helps me understand the problems in the book. I can reconcile the explanation in the book with practical experience."