Buckle your seatbelts. Quentin Fouliard is ready for takeoff. Born in France and with life experiences all over the world, UCF’s first Ph.D. graduate in aerospace engineering is always looking outward and upward. But ask Fouliard where he sees the future of travel taking him after graduation and he’ll give an answer you might not expect.

“My future is right here,” he says of his decision to continue his potentially groundbreaking research in smart aircraft materials as a post-doctoral scholar. “This is the best place to extend my ideas for air transportation.”

Staying put is a new concept for Fouliard. His dad worked in the French military, so the family moved often, to places as remote as Yeu Island (population: 4,771) off France’s west coast and as epic as Tahiti. His eyes really widened to the power of travel while in French Polynesia — though not necessarily because of the dreamscapes there. To this day, he remembers being in an airplane hangar as a 9 year old and sneaking into a twin-engine island-hopper. Alone in the cockpit, he was overcome with awe.

“I was amazed at the complexity of the controls and the dimension of what it all represented: transporting people from distant place to distant place very fast.”

Several weeks later, a family friend invited Fouliard to see the dimension from another perspective: the co-pilot seat during a flight to the beautiful island of Moorea. “In my mind, I can still see our descent from high above the ocean.”

Fascinated as he was by the scenery, Fouliard was also taking note of how the plane’s design fed into speed and efficiency. His interest piqued further when he and his dad went to the top of a mountain above Tahiti International Airport to watch the arrival of a supersonic Concorde jet, capable of flying twice the speed of sound at 1,350 mph. Fouliard saw the plane’s nose shaped like a duck. He heard the rumble of its awesome power. A short time later, he would also hear news about Air France retiring the Concorde because of high maintenance costs and low fuel efficiency.

Maybe it could be done better, he thought.

Every event provided a link, from those days of sky-watching in Tahiti to earning a master’s degree in materials science engineering at Polytech Nantes in France to his landing in 2016 at UCF where he entered the Ph.D. program in mechanical engineering. His mission: find the right combination of physical materials to make air travel faster, safer and less expensive.

“I’d been to UCF as a visiting student and saw that the most prominent aerospace companies in the world are all around the campus,” Fouliard says, providing his own visual reason for why Aviation Week Network has named UCF the number-one workforce supplier of graduates to U.S. aerospace and defense industries for five consecutive years. “Creativity is one of my strengths, so coming here with outside-the-box ideas made sense.”

When he arrived, however, Fouliard had to first creatively tackle the minutiae of everyday life in America — the “comforts” most of us take for granted. He slept on a friend’s couch while waiting for his own place to become available. With no social-security card, no driver’s license, and virtually no money, he had no “basic transportation” as we call it in the U.S. It took two years to find his own ride.

“Once I became settled, it made me very grateful to be immersed in the work I’m passionate about. The distractions of life trained me to became more efficient.”

Working more efficiently is exactly what smart materials will do for airplanes. He’s collaborated on projects with the U.S. Department of Energy, Siemens, GE Aviation, Boeing, and Textron, always with a scenario looming in his mind: Flying from the U.S. to Paris in two hours, and then flying back before the end of the day.

“I’m not able to get home to see my family in France very often,” Fouliard says, noting that his mom and dad will be at his graduation ceremony on Dec. 14. “The idea of faster flights there and back motivates me. But it can’t be done until we find materials to withstand extreme environments at hypersonic speed. That’s my focus.”

He’s been experimenting with ceramic coatings, additive manufacturing super-alloys and composites. He’s submitting invention disclosures and publishing papers. Winning awards and making progress — always making progress. Almost by accident, Fouliard is leading another breakthrough. UCF launched its Ph.D. program in aerospace engineering earlier this year to expand on the existing master’s program. Fouliard’s work in mechanical engineering satisfied the aerospace requirements so he was granted a transfer, which is why he will be the first official doctoral graduate from UCF’s aerospace engineering program.

“There aren’t many schools with Ph.D. options in aerospace engineering, so I’m very fortunate to be on the front end at UCF,” Fouliard says.

The Ph.D. degree is not a finish line for Fouliard. He’s just gathering momentum in his research and he plans to keep moving forward by staying grounded here as a post-doctoral scholar. “I could start a job,” he says, “but I can make more of an impact by extending further my research and collaborating with experts in the aerospace and materials fields. The post-doctorate work here is not constrained. There’s an open-mindedness to pursue a vision for the future.”

The future he visualizes is this: a plane takes off from Orlando International Airport at 8 a.m. and lands in Paris in time for a family brunch, with a return flight that same evening. Fouliard would make the flight often. And out in a field or from a hilltop vista, he imagines a kid watching the plane in awe.

Story by Robert Stephens, UCF Today