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Aviation alums soar into varied careers
February 24, 2023
If you look up in the sky over Carbondale on any given day, you may catch sight of a piece of Southern Illinois University (SIU): the School of Aviation’s small planes with bold letters on the underside of the wings that read “SIU.” But the university’s nationally-recognized School of Aviation doesn’t just train pilots. It also creates other professionals in the related areas of Aviation Management, Aviation Technology and Aviation Maintenance to name a few.
2003 SIU alum Dennis Diaz was living in Woodbridge, Virginia when he obtained his pilot certificate in high school. One of his flight instructors was an SIU alum.
“My instructor suggested that I look into SIU. My instructor’s initial recommendation carried a lot of weight, as she was someone that I admired and respected,” Diaz said.
He enrolled in SIU with the intention of becoming a pilot with a major airline. But the terrorist attack of 2001 on the World Trade Towers made him think about a different career in aviation.
“I was at SIU on Sept. 11 and so obviously hugely tragic events, world-changing events that day and on a personal level, kind of just watching what happened to the aviation industry,” Diaz said. “There was a big industry downturn as a result.”
At the end of his senior year, he was looking for summer internships.
“[I] saw that the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) had an internship available.”
The NTSB is a government agency that operates with the goal to make transportation safer by conducting independent accident investigations and advocating safety improvements.
“My thought was ‘I’ll go over there and do a summer and go back to flying’…I was fortunate enough at that time, in the agency, they were looking for people…so, what was supposed to be three months turned into six months turned into twelve months turned into basically four-year career development at the end of, I became a full investigator,” Diaz said.
He is now Eastern Region Chief of the NTSB based in Washington, D.C. Although Diaz achieved his senior staff position with a lot of hard work, he credits his SIU experience with his success.
“I felt exceptionally prepared coming into that internship with the classes that I had had, not just on the flight side but also on the management side, on the technical knowledge, systems knowledge, industry knowledge…the regulatory environment you’re coming into…I felt fortunate, I felt wow, I really got an education that in many facets was a well-rounded education,” Diaz said.
He said one safety class with Dr. Jose Paul Ruiz changed his life.
“It was the thing that turned me onto this being a possible career path. If it hadn’t been for that, if it hadn’t been for him, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today,” Diaz said.
SIU Aviation Management alum Buck Taft also graduated from SIU in 2003. But, prior to visiting the SIU campus, college wasn’t high on his list of priorities.
“I didn’t have a clue on what I wanted to do…and I came down to southern Illinois with a friend of mine whose brother went there and at the time they had Spring Fling…It was like a big party. George Clinton and the P. Funks were playing. My buddy and I looked at each other and we were like, this is awesome,” Taft said. “We kinda decided right there, we’re gonna transfer schools and I looked online and saw they had an aviation program and I was already flying and I was like, this is what I want to do. I want to do aviation.”
Taft worked an internship in Springfield, Illinois and then graduated.
“I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, you know, if I wanted to be a pilot, I didn’t know if I wanted to go into the military and fly, I didn’t know if I wanted to work for the airlines, had no clue what I wanted to do. And the airport said, ‘Hey, um, we like you, we appreciate the time you gave us as an intern. We don’t have a job for you but would you like to be a temporary custodian?’ I said, ‘sure, that works’ and I was a custodian for three months,” Taft said.
His dedication paid off, and he was hired onto the airport full-time.
“I was in, and I just kept doing it and I moved to a different airport and kind of moved up and then I moved up again and the next thing you know, I wanted to be an airport director,” Taft said.
His advice to students who might be thinking of a career in airport management:
“I started as a custodian, and you know, now I’m an airport director. One of my instructors told me…just get your foot in the door and then once you get your foot in the door, it’s up to you to excel and to take on new challenges, work harder than anybody else, put in extra hours, be dedicated, be flexible.”
Taft has worked at four airports and said every new job set him up for the next.
“It’s important, even though it’s not the job you want, it’s not the place you want to live, they’re offering you a job, take it. Suck it up for two years and then move on and move up,” he said.
2018 SIU Aviation alum Natelie Chappell always knew she wanted to study aviation. But it was in her senior year of high school that she realized she wanted to be an air traffic controller.
“I had my first flight when I was three weeks old. My dad is an airline pilot. I’ve just always been in love with airplanes and all things aviation-related,” she said.
During a chance meeting with a female air traffic controller, Chappell learned about the flexible schedule, good pay and variety of daily activities the career offered.
“My college in Beaver, Pennsylvania…did a sister campus program and it really intrigued me that I could earn my Bachelors degree in-person on the weekends…every Saturday and Sunday from like 8am to 5pm-ish…we would do the Bachelor’s program in aviation management and it was really cool because it was a smaller class and the teachers who taught at SIU would fly up to Pittsburgh.”
When asked what duties she performs at her job, Chappell said, “I am responsible for hundreds of lives daily and managing aircraft in and out of the (Washington) D.C. area. I work in a dark room and control aircraft on a radar scope and keep them all separated.”
Chappell has previously worked as an air traffic controller in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. She currently works at Potomac TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control Facilities), a radar facility that services air traffic in and out of the Dulles Airport.
“I’m so glad I did it. SIU was amazing,” she said.
Fellow SIU alum and 2005 graduate Pat Skonie also became an air traffic controller. Skonie majored in both aviation management and aviation flight while he worked as a flight instructor for the university.
“I actually originally went to SIU to become a pilot,” Skonie said.
But the thought of spending large amounts of time away from his girlfriend and future wife, coupled with plans to start a family, inspired him to contact one of his SIU professors for career advice.
“…I actually contacted Dr. Ruiz…I had taken an air traffic control class…with him…and I knew he was an air traffic controller previously…I kind of asked him, ‘hey, what’s out there that I can do, you know, in air traffic control?’ I thought, ‘you know, that was a cool class I took’ and I thought maybe that would keep me in aviation and in something I could do,” he said.
Ruiz recommended a technical college up north not far from Skonie’s hometown of Naperville, Illinois that taught air traffic control. Skonie is now an air traffic controller at the Chicago Center, which is one of 21 ARTCC’s (Air Route Traffic Control Centers) in the U.S. that service major U.S. cities.
“Typically my facility at the Chicago Center, we’ll handle aircraft going into O’Hare, leaving O’Hare, leaving Midway, you know, leaving all the airports within our airspace and landing within our airspace, and then we’ll also work the traffic that overflies our airspace, all the en route aircraft going from the east coast to west coast and visa versa – north and south. On a normal day, we work 6,000-7,000 flights through our airspace.”
Skonie is confident that his education at SIU has benefitted him in his present career.
“[It] gave me the background and definitely an invaluable experience, you know. What I learned at SIU has greatly helped in my career as an air traffic controller…it definitely gave me the foundation and a lot of fundamentals that have been beneficial to my job,” he said.
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