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Renowned Rocket Engineer Becomes New Reserve Officer: Dedicated Reservist served as aerial porter before commissioning

  • Published
  • By Bo Joyner
  • Citizen Airman Magazine

When you ask Dr. Javier Urzay what he does for a living, it’s useful to have a dictionary close by. You see, Urzay is an aerospace engineer who is an expert on high-speed, chemically reacting, multi-phase flow physics and their engineering applications to aeronautics and astronautics, including chemical propulsion and hypersonic aerothermodynamics of air and space flight systems. He uses theory and large-scale numerical simulations in supercomputers to understand and predict complex flow-physics phenomena, such as the laser ignition of cryogenic rocket propellants or the heat loads and forces on hypersonic aircraft.

He's also a newly commissioned Air Force Reserve officer. As a second lieutenant, Urzay is an individual mobilization augmentee assigned to U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command as the lead for hypersonic-glider tracking concepts. He also supports the Air Force Reserve Hypersonics Team by providing expert input in projects related to hypersonic propulsion. As a civilian, he recently accepted a position as the chief of the Combustion Devices Branch of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Rocket Propulsion Division at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

Before accepting his current job at the Air Force Research Lab, he served as a senior research aerospace engineer at Stanford University’s Center for Turbulence Research and the associate director of a research center at Stanford dedicated to exascale computing in rocket propulsion. He lectured on combustion, high-speed flows and orbital mechanics, and also created and taught the only graduate class on hypersonics that exists today in Stanford’s graduate curriculum. He’s published more than 50 scientific papers and technical reports, and his research has been funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Office of Naval Research, NASA and the Department of Energy.

So what would lead one of the nation’s top rocket engineers to pursue a second career as a Reserve Citizen Airman?

Urzay’s story actually begins half a world away in a small apartment in a suburb south of Madrid, Spain, called Parla.

“I was brought up in a low-class family,” Urzay recalled. “My father was a manager in a telecommunications company and my mother was a housewife. Although he never went to college, my father had an unusual interest in reading classic literature, and he spoke English quite well. He was a self-taught individual and he wanted me to be well educated.”

Urzay credits his father with igniting his interest in airplanes and rockets.

“When I was a kid, my father used to take me to air shows at the nearby Getafe Air Force Base, and he would buy me toys that spurred my interest in technical problems,” he said. “I remember him buying me model kits of the Apache helicopter and the F-117 stealth plane and we built them together.”

Urzay’s father also bought him a deck of cards to play with. Each card in the deck featured an aircraft along with its weight, speed, thrust and range.

“There was always one card we strived to own in the game: the North American Aviation X-15 hypersonic rocket plane,” he said. “The first time I saw the words ‘U.S. Air Force’ they were printed on the side of the black fuselage of the X-15 rocket plane. It looked like a spaceship and it sparked my interest in one day working for the U.S. Air Force on such strange aircraft in remote U.S. deserts.”

To this day, Urzay keeps that 35-year-old X-15 rocket-plane card in the pocket of his military uniform.

As a youngster, Urzay excelled in physics, chemistry and mathematics, and earned an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from a public university near his home. Wanting to spread his academic wings, he applied to the University of California San Diego as a graduate research assistant in the aerospace engineering Ph.D. program and was accepted.

“So I came to the United States in 2005 on a student visa without speaking much English and having never traveled abroad before,” Urzay said.

The student quickly adapted to his adopted home and thrived in his new academic and research environment. In the U.S., he learned first-hand from world-renowned experts on high-speed combustion and aerodynamics, including Stanford professor Parviz Moin, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and UCSD professor Forman Williams, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and former pupil of Air Force Research and Development Command founder Theodore von Karman. Yet, he still longed for civil service and still harbored a fascination with the high-tech U.S. Air and Space Forces. 

“I had a student in my hypersonics class at Stanford who was a Hoover’s National Security Fellow – Col. Timothy Murphy,” Urzay said. “He was an F-16 pilot at the time and we used to talk after the lectures about his experiences in the Air Force. I told him I had always been interested in being involved in experimental flight testing. He encouraged me to look into officer AFSCs (Air Force Specialty Codes) related to flight testing in the Reserve.”

Following Murphy’s advice, Urzay called an officer accessions recruiter in 2019 at the age of 37. Unfortunately, since Urzay was not yet a U.S. citizen, there were very few commissioned options available.

Undeterred, Urzay reached out to an enlisted recruiter, Senior Master Sgt. Manuel Salinas, who encouraged him to enlist first and then try to become an officer after becoming a U.S. citizen.

“He also told me that being enlisted first would probably make me a better officer,” Urzay said. “I did not understand this until I entered the operational Air Force as an Airman First Class. Now it is very clear to me that he was completely right.”

Three years shy of his 40th birthday, Urzay enlisted in May 2019. After basic military training and tech school, he went to work as an aerial porter assigned to the 349th Air Mobility Wing’s 82nd Aerial Port Squadron, Travis AFB, California.

The Airman said he really enjoyed his time with the 82nd.

“I spent most of my time in the warehouse building pallets, shipping them and working with my active-duty counterparts in the 60th Air Mobility Wing,” he said. “It was a valuable experience since I got to see first-hand the sacrifices many of our young Airmen make working long shifts through the day in these physically demanding jobs with equipment that very often is outdated or just broken. While we tend to worry about developing sophisticated high-tech weapons to win wars, we also tend to forget that simple things such as an old desktop computer that does not work in a warehouse can make a mission fail.”

Urzay said that a highlight of his time as an aerial porter was during his annual tour in 2021 when he helped to build, process and track more than 100 pallets for an international COVID relief mission that provided around 500 tons of medical supplies to front-line medics across the world, including Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India. 

While working with the 82nd APS, Urzay was recruited by Col. Joseph Tringe to join the Air Force Reserve Hypersonics Team, a group of highly skilled field-grade Air Force officers who provide expert opinions to Defense Department leaders on hypersonics. He also became a U.S. citizen late in 2020 and began thinking that he might be more useful to the Air Force if he had a job closer to his civilian expertise.

“I stumbled upon an article written by Air Force Lt. Col. Jacqueline Schneider about force modernization that made the point that to make the most out of Air Force Reservists, they should perhaps be employed in missions aligned with their civilian expertise instead of being dropped into environments where they cannot contribute as much,” Urzay said. “I thought her article described my case very well.” 

Urzay contacted Schneider, whose office just happened to be around the corner from his at Stanford. “I explained my case to her and she offered to help,” he said.

“Some days after that interaction, Col. Christopher Johnson contacted me with the possibility of working at the Space Force’s Space Systems Command. He said I would have to become an officer and I told him I was definitely up to the task. He forwarded my package to Col. Connie Clay, the career field manager for the developmental engineer career field.

“I was the luckiest Airman on the planet for crossing paths with Col. Clay and Col. Johnson. They belong to a talent-focused core of senior officers in the Air Force Reserve who are dedicated to unearthing cross-disciplinary potential hidden in Reserve individuals so they can do extraordinary things for our nation.”

Urzay was accepted to Officer Training School in late 2021 and began OTS in early January of this year. He graduated from OTS in March.

Clay said the process of getting Urzay commissioned was not an easy one.

“It was challenging to say the least,” she said. “It’s not normal practice to commission second lieutenants into force modernization or into the IMA program. From identification of then-Senior Airman Urzay as a high-speed candidate to commissioning was just over a year. It took a huge lift from a lot of people – in and outside of the Reserve force modernization community – to get this package pushed through a very cumbersome process to approval. At the end of the day, the skillset he brings to the greater DoD mission far outweighs the significant challenges in getting him to commissioning. I am very grateful to have been part of such a significant accomplishment not just for Dr. Urzay, but also for the greater Total Force mission.”

Clay went on to say that Urzay is already doing great things as a new Reserve officer.

“He is the ideal digital Airman we need to push the Total Force into the next century,” she said. “He will provide years of world-class experience and research in core technical disciplines that are of great relevance for the Air and Space Forces. For instance, his specialized expertise will enable the DoD to accelerate hypersonic weapon development and delivery. In addition, 2nd Lt. Urzay is just an overall great person and is already providing the technical expertise highly sought after on the Reserve Hypersonics Team.”

Urzay said he is proud of serving his adopted country as both a Reservist assigned to the Space Systems Command and a civilian assigned to the Air Force Research Lab.

“I owe a great deal to this country,” he said. “It would be selfish of me to keep enjoying the ride without doing anything in return. I believe we should help preserve the technological preeminence of this country in the world so that future generations can reap the benefits the same way I have. My adventure in the Air Force Reserve has just begun!”