High School Pilots Turn Toward Aerospace Research


Oroville Wright’s birthday, August 19, 1871, has been celebrated since 1939 as National Aviation Day. For his first flight in 1903, Oroville was 32 years old, still a young man whose curiosity about flight remains commonplace among adolescents and young adults deciding what to do with their lives. Today, just under 3% of pilots are between the ages of 16 - 19, and a teen’s fascination with flying can sometimes lead to a career in aerospace engineering. In USC Viterbi’s Summer High School Intensive in Next-Generation Engineering (SHINE) program, two aspiring pilots  -- Vale and Philbert -- followed their passion for airplanes into seven weeks of aerospace research with Professor Mitul Luhar this summer. 


Philbert and a plane.

Even as an infant, Philbert would crawl to the cockpit if he was on an airplane, according to his parents. His passion never left him, and he first flew a light sport aircraft in 2016. “It always intrigued me on how it was possible that such a large monstrous objects were able to fly and remain airborne for such lengthy periods of times,” he says. Similarly, Vale’s fascination with airplanes began young. He lived near the  LAX Airport, and his grandfather frequently took him to the airport or the local flight museum. Adding a flight simulator to his computer, however, was the turning point, and Vale logged 2,000 simulator hours before actually flying a plane for the first time in 2018. Both are training to be pilots, and Vale expects to receive his license this year while Philbert is resuming training that had been interrupted by COVID. Becoming a pilot requires a good understanding of basic aerospace and physics. 

Vale’s strengths in math and science made it natural to pursue projects in high school related to aerospace in tandem with learning to fly. Philbert’s pilot training helped him link aviation and aerospace: “When I started my pilot training, I thought it would have a bit of paperwork on the ground and most of it would be the development of my technique in the air. However, I was completely wrong. A lot of flying is understanding the fundamentals of flight and the mechanics that make it possible.”

Although they both are learning to fly on a Cessna aircraft, the two did not know each other before meeting as SHINE students in Professor Luhar’s lab. “Working in Dr. Luhar’s lab on an amazing project (Plotting Flow Fields in Virtual Reality) gave me a true taste of aerospace engineering research,” Vale reports. For his research project, Vale was tasked with developing a portable virtual reality (VR) application built for the low-cost Google Cardboard headset. The overarching purpose of this application was to provide a fully immersive and interactive environment to visualize scientific data, specifically three-dimensional time-varying fluid dynamics datasets. This multifaceted project required Vale to learn how to program in C#, learn the fundamentals of object-oriented programming, and understand different data types. For this project, Vale utilized Unity—a cross-platform game development engine—to develop and design this VR application. 


Philbert’s research project also required cutting-edge technology: deep learning and programming to study fluid mechanics. After some background training, Philbert used Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs) to identify various objects in the CIFAR10 and MNIST image databases representing the flow field of a stratified wake. By the end of the seven weeks, Philbert was able to design a CNN architecture that could classify the various regimes of the wake, normalizing and scaling the flow-field images to improve CNN classification accuracy. Professor Luhar and the Ph.D. students mentoring Vale and Philbert praised their passion and abilities.

Not everyone interested in fluid dynamics in Professor Luhar's lab, however, is interested in aviation. Another SHINE student, Maddie, has spent two summers conducting research with Luhar's team, focusing this summer on computational fluid dynamics with a goal of applying these skills to biological flows, as in the circulatory or respiratory systems.

Oroville Wright could never have imagined high school students using virtual reality or neural networks to understand fluid dynamics in either biological systems or aviation. Even today, it’s noteworthy to find two high school students on their way to being licensed pilots, let alone having the computational programming skills capable of such sophisticated research. On National Aviation Day, we celebrate aviators and aerospace engineers for all we’ve learned since Oroville was born on August 19.

Published on August 17th, 2021

Last updated on March 28th, 2022