As West Point continues to produce multiple research projects to advance the Army warfighter, cadets at the U.S. Military Academy are constantly at work reaching technological breakthroughs that make those advancements possible. Class of 2021 Cadet Thomas Aldhizer is one of many cadets using his passion for physics to develop contingency measures to potentially safeguard the lives of Soldiers on the battlefield. Aldhizer has spent most of his tenure at West Point defining theories related to lessening the variability of swinging when a casualty is being hoisted up into a Medevac helicopter. This year, the fruits of his labor finally came with the Thomas Young Award for outstanding research in physics.
Despite winning the award, the struggle to achieve this level of success was riddled with difficult obstacles. Those obstacles reminded him of simpler times in Pfafftown — a small community within the city of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he cultivated his passion for physics at Ronald Wilson Reagan High School. The community he lived in really valued and cherished people and the citizens of Pfafftown nurtured his desire to one day serve and give back to the people, Aldhizer added.
“I didn’t really want to go to college and make money, I wanted to go to college and be able to eventually do something to give back to Pfafftown,” Aldhizer said. “So, I did JROTC in high school and I asked my mentors ‘where’s the best place I could go.’ They pointed toward a lot of places like Texas Tech or Virginia Tech, like a lot of good colleges, but not service academies.”
It wasn’t until his sophomore year in high school when his friend and colleague, 2nd Lt. Ean McCool, who was a senior at the time, informed Aldhizer of the opportunity that awaited him at West Point. McCool graduated from high school and attended West Point and that encouraged Aldhizer to do the same.
“I was like, ‘wow, people from Pfafftown can go to West Point,’ and that was kind of where I started looking into the academy and saying, ‘OK, how did my buddy get into West Point — what can I do, what should I do to get along that route,’” Aldhizer said of applying to West Point.
As his journey began at the U.S. Military Academy, Aldhizer followed the path of academics like his father, who is a professor of forensic accounting at Wake Forest University, but he became the first in his family to join the military. His desire to give back to the people of Pfafftown evolved into giving back to the country as whole, Aldhizer added.
With Aldhizer hoping to branch into Infantry, he knew lifting a rifle in service to his country wasn’t enough. He explained with his keen interest in physics and a strong desire to preserve the lives of Soldiers, brainstorming ways to minimize the number of casualties on the battlefield was the approach he would take in giving back. Aldhizer began brainstorming on what eventually became single stabilizations for casualty evacuation, he said.
“If you’ve got a helicopter, and you’re trying to evacuate a casualty from the battlefield. You would drop a hoist cable down to the people who are trying to be evacuated. Well, the problem is when you are reeling them into the helicopter, the casualty will start to swing left and right,” Aldhizer said. “To paint a picture, as you shorten the cable length on a pendulum, the swinging becomes more and more violent. So the current way that we fight that is the crew chief in a helicopter will manually fight the swinging in the cable in order to stabilize the casualty coming up, but what can happen is — it can cause the crew chief to lean out of the helicopter in a dangerous way — it can cause the crew chief to overexert himself or herself and cause themselves injury.”
Aldhizer added how unsafe the typical process of saving the casualty is. In today’s battlefield, a helicopter will land in the combat zone and the casualties will be loaded into the helicopter. However, the problem arises when enemy insurgents like Al Qaeda and ISIS are waiting in position for the UH-60 Blackhawks to come in to evacuate the casualties. And when the helicopters land, they’ll reengage and block the entire helicopter.
“We really want to find a way to make hoisted cable casualty evacuations more feasible to save lives, save equipment, save everything,” Aldhizer said. “And so, what my research is doing is trying to find an algorithm to vary the way we reel in the casualty that would decrease the overall swinging as he or she is being hoisted up onto the helicopter.”
Aldhizer stressed how illuminating the research process was under the tutelage of Dr. Mary Lanzerotti, a former assistant professor and master teacher at USMA and now a assistant professor at Virginia Tech, and how a great portion of all the research that was compiled came from the knowledge she would impart to Aldhizer.
“I just had a phenomenal professor in Mary Lanzerotti. She made it very autonomous for me throughout the process,” Aldhizer said. “I took PH 389, which was among the course offerings that focused on independent research and physics. I had to write a summary, I had to do a literature review and (Professor Lanzerotti) definitely made sure I fulfilled those tasks.”
Aldhizer added how challenging it was having Lanzerotti advise him as he, with the help of Lanzerotti and other subject matter experts, began his physics research for safer Medevac operations. The first time he asked Lanzerotti to be his advisor, she responded by making him write a schedule for the following week that would allow him to design a process to concisely and punctually complete aspects of his research.
“By the end of each week, her methods prompted me to have an element of the research done. It was a difficult trial because there were times when I really hoped that I could have these many simulations done, or she and I could discuss an aspect of research that would result in developing a plan for every single week,” Aldhizer said. “All of it was meant to organize our thoughts.”
Last year, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)—International Superconductive Electronics Conference (ISEC) was held at Princeton University where Aldhizer’s research notes where reviewed. The peer review process to get published at Princeton was paramount.
The research was submitted to a panel for review and the panel would then send back questions or clarifications they wanted answered, and from there, Aldhizer along with his advisors would address those inquiries and try to fix discrepancies. Soon after, Aldhizer was able to submit the research and get it published in the conference notes, Aldhizer said.
Compiling the research came with many challenges. Early this year, Aldhizer was scheduled to visit Sapienza University of Rome, a research university located in Rome, Italy, to work with a professor named Dr. Carbonaro on further developing his research notes and getting it published in a journal this year. Unfortunately, the trip got cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions, Aldhizer said.
“So, we weren’t able to get around to finishing up the research the way we wanted,” Aldhizer said. “Our research process was like a snowball rolling downhill gaining a lot of momentum to kind of like this thing where it happened, and it’s now got conference notes, but there’s no real path forward in a way for us to continue to research effectively.”
During the second semester, COVID-19 was an obstacle that made the procedure more strenuous. Every step of the process following the pandemic was a testament to Aldhizer’s patience. Lanzerotti and other mentors, like Susan Lintelmann, archives and special collections research support librarian at USMA, worked hard to keep him on the path to success and their support helped fortify Aldhizer’s willpower, he added.
“One of the hardest parts of the process was me and Dr. Lanzerotti battling it out in front of a whiteboard working on theories and improving the efficiency of the research,” Aldhizer said. “Also, when we went remote during COVID, we were doing all the essential aspects of the research from home which made things more difficult. Everything from Projects Day to the video presentation of my research at the Princeton Convention was done remotely.”
Despite the hardship that came with research development, Aldhizer was recognized for his accomplishments at West Point by receiving the Thomas Young Award for Outstanding Research in Physics and though he received this award, he stressed how the award was a representation of the team effort he and his advisors maintained throughout the complex process.
“My name is on the award but, I can’t say it enough, it’s really a reflection of our group’s effort. I really got it because of Dr. Lanzerotti’s mentorship, from all the work that our research is built on,” he said. “Also, we worked really closely with the archives center at Bartlett Hall, so Ms. Lintellmen was a very influential worker in the archives center that really helped the research exponentially.”
Aldhizer’s goal for the future is getting his master’s degree with his thesis being the continuation of the research on single stabilizations for casualty evacuation. Aldhizer hopes that his research will become a capstone project in which, every year, cadets continue to work on refining the research material.
“I would love it if this casualty evacuation would become a capstone that would be continued to be researched every year. Because you know, mechanical engineers could create an apparatus that would enable the swinging to be dissipated or physics engineers,” he said. “Or rather, physics students could continue researching on how to best apply the algorithm that we found, to continue lessening the variability within the swinging. And so, in the future it can be about taking the step further and actually applying the theory and making something to actually do it in a physical space.”