Julian Chee has been fascinated with airplanes and flight since he was a child growing up in Malaysia.
“I’ve always been interested in anything that flew as a kid,” he said. “Flying is a very alien concept, so anything that flew captivated me.”
That fascination grew into an adult-sized hobby and eventually earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records this spring for the farthest flight of a paper airplane.
Chee, who is a 2021 aerospace engineering graduate from Wichita State University, started down the paper airplane path when he was about 5 years old.
“I would typically take my planes off to the playground and throw it as hard as I could,” he said.
As he grew older and more adept at paper airplane design, Chee became an expert on the nuances of the intricate folds and curves that made the origami aircraft fly higher, faster and longer.
“I got really close to the world record,” he said. “Once I learned how to make a few of them, you can start piecing together different elements from different designs and getting them to do different missions, stay in the air for a long time, go as far as you can, or even replicas of existing airplanes.”
Once he arrived in Kansas to attend Wichita State, Chee continued to pursue the world record. For a while, he used Wichita State's Bombardier Indoor Practice Facility and an old airplane hangar to test his paper airplane deigns.
“Getting the planes to fly further and faster was just a natural step for me, and it got to the point where they were starting to match the world record times,” Chee said.
Unfortunately, the demands of being a student forced Chee to pause his pursuit of the world record and focus on his studies and his job. However, a friend from South Korea reached out and asked Chee if he could use his design to try and break the world record.
On April 16 using Chee’s design, Kim Kyu Tae and Shin Moo Joon — both from South Korea — added some small modifications to Chee’s design and threw the plane a jaw-dropping 252 feet, smashing the previous world record by 26 feet.
Flying high in Wichita
On the ground back in Wichita, Julian has made a career out of his passion for all things that fly. He works full-time as a design engineer for Airbus on Wichita State’s Innovation Campus.
“My primary job is to do a lot of 3D modeling and checking up on drawings and making sure that everything is in the right revision for any kind of modifications,” he said.
Chee said he always knew he wanted to study aerospace.
“The paper airplane thing as a kid was a big part of that,” he said. “I was very interested in knowing how these things work. I was looking for a school, and America is the god of aerospace.”
After learning about the options available to him, Wichita State was the best fit.
“What brought me to Wichita specifically was how affordable Wichita is and the fact that there are so many aerospace companies around,” he said.
Kansas’ topography was also a draw.
“Everything is flat. The flat land makes it a really great place to do aerospace-related activities,” he said.
Between his full-time job at Airbus and designing origami flying machines, Chee finds time to pursue his other flying-adjacent hobby: rockets.
While a student at Wichita State, Chee joined the Rocket Club and became its vice president from 2020 to 2021.
“In that club, we learned how to design, build and launch high-powered solid propellant rockets,” Chee said.
Each month, Chee said Rocket Club members would travel to nearby Argonia, KS to test their rockets.
“That has gotten to the point where I have gained a lot of experience building much larger and more powerful rockets,” he said. “I'm also currently mentoring a few international universities for Spaceport America Cup Rocket Competition, which is the world's largest intercollegiate rocket competition.”
Chee attributes the opportunity to mold his hobbies into a career to the experiences available to him at Wichita State.
“There are a lot of student competitions that are offered for us to compete,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities that allow us to really put our skills to the test.”