Engineering in Common

This year marks the 65th anniversary of Engineers Week since its founding by the National Society of Professional Engineers in 1951.Through a coalition of more than 70 engineering, educational and cultural societies, as well as more than 50 corporations and government agencies, EWeek aims to promote awareness of engineers’ contributions and the importance of technical education and careers.

Members of the Great Lakes Regional Office Team. From left to right: Cyrus Bracey, Dominika Drozdzal, Christina Drouet, and Barry Cooper.

Christina Drouet shared a commonality with her new colleagues when she began working for the FAA in Illinois in the 1990s.

The Chicago native met employees with similar technical expertise in the Great Lakes (AGL) Regional Office. After ascending through the management ranks, she is one of a Regions and Property Operations (ARO) team of managers in the region’s Special Projects Office. She works alongside Regional Administrator Barry Cooper and O’Hare Modernization Program Manager Mel Banks who also have engineering backgrounds.

“The Great Lakes leadership team is comprised of all engineers,” said Drouet, who became the Great Lakes’ Deputy Regional Administrator in 2015. “If you look around the country at other regional leadership teams, you will find a variety of backgrounds, from military experience to law to aviation.”

Their engineering expertise has enhanced the team’s working relationship. “Engineering is very problem solving-oriented,” Drouet said. “An engineering education helps people think objectively. That’s beneficial from a managerial perspective.”

Cooper said he chose his engineering career path while in high school and studied civil engineering at the University of Massachusetts. The FAA hired him in 1976 as an entry level civil engineer in the Airway Facilities Division — the current-day equivalent of the Air Traffic Organization (ATO)’s Engineering Services group. He worked on the establishment of various facilities comprising the National Airspace System (NAS).

“I was very fortunate to join the FAA immediately after graduating from college,” Cooper said. “I actually spent the first 15 years of my FAA career in various engineering positions within the Airway Facilities organization. That experience provided me a great foundation for the rest of my FAA career.”

Banks, who joined the FAA as a support communications contractor in 1985, estimated that the management trio has amassed nearly a century’s worth of experience at the agency. “There’s close to 100 years just between the three of us,” he said. “I started working with Barry in the late 80’s to early 90’s and I started working with Christina mid-2000s. She served as one of our technical leads in the Airway Facilities organization.”

O'Hare Modernization Program Manager Mel Banks

Banks earned degrees in electrical, electromagnetic, and computer engineering before he worked for private companies in New Jersey and his hometown of Chicago. He worked for the FAA in Washington, D.C. before transferring to the Great Lakes office.

“Most of my tenure has been in Chicago,” he said. He worked on a variety of projects to upgrade equipment related to the NAS. “That was really the key to my success with the agency. It gave me the opportunity to work with and learn from various individuals.”

One of those individuals has been Cooper, Banks said. “Barry is a very much down to earth person and someone you can talk to,” Banks said. “He has leadership skills that are second to none. I’ve had the benefit of knowing Barry from when he was a program manager. I’ve watched him grow over the years as he moved into management positions.”

Cooper, Drouet, and Banks have each managed the region’s Chicago Modernization Program Office, which oversees a multi-year, multi-billion dollar development initiative for Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

“I have the double advantage of having two prior experts to fill that position support me,” Banks said. “I can collaborate with Christina on her experiences and benefit from those skills. It’s always good to call upon someone like Christina or Barry who has the program history. I think it has been a big plus for all of us.”

Cooper similarly credited his engineering background and previous positions for preparing him for his current role.

“The engineering work I did in my early career provided me a terrific opportunity to see and learn how the NAS works,” Cooper said. “Additionally, I was fortunate to work in technical positions in not just the Airway Facilities organization but also the Airports organization and that gave me a broader view of our agency and the important technical works it does.”

Other engineers in the office also work in a variety of divisions.

“There are 100 or more engineers here,” Drouet said. “Engineering has always been a large part of what the FAA does at this facility.”

Another member of the AGL team, Dominika Drozdzal, said she was previously unaware of the agency’s wide array of opportunities for engineers when she was hired as a field engineer in 2001.

“I didn’t realize the FAA hired engineers until I was introduced to the agency at a job fair,” said Drozdzal, who earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Once I was onboard, I realized there were many opportunities to learn and grow in engineering and project management.”

She recently transitioned from ATO’s Engineering Services division to a project manager position in ARO. Her engineering background has aided her work on the O’Hare modernization program.

“The complex environment at O’Hare, with the integration of airport construction and FAA work, is a real challenge but also a rewarding opportunity,” Drozdzal said. “Working in such a dynamic environment takes patience. Remember building new runways and facilities at one of the busiest airports in the NAS without impacts, takes a real coordinated effort. It’s a combination of experience and my engineering background that help me work effectively with airports and in dealing with other lines of business.”

Drozdzal has volunteered with other Great Lakes Regional Office engineers to visit local schools to talk with students about engineering opportunities. Last year, she visited a science fair along with Cyrus Bracey, a Communications project engineer, and Francisco Montes, a manager in the Chicago En Route Engineering Center.

Cyrus Bracey, left, Dominika Drozdzal, and Systems Engineer Troy Swanberg were volunteer judges last year at the Chicago Public Schools Student Science Fair

Bracey routinely gives presentations at Chicago area schools and participates in other outreach events. He served for four years in the Air Force and earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill. before joining the FAA in 2000.

“I remind [students] how rewarding a degree in engineering will be and the countless times I have been told by people that they started in the field of engineering but changed to another degree,” Bracey said.

He recalled advice that another engineer at the agency once shared with him. “To the new FAA engineer, I like to tell them what was told to me by a fellow engineer, ‘Tear up your résumé.’ This is the place that you stay for your entire career.”

Montes worked for about 17 years as a resident engineer before he became an en route manager. At one time, he, Drozdzal, and Bracey all worked together in the ATO’s Engineering Services division.

“We were all basically right there together in Engineering Services,” said Montes, who specializes in electrical engineering. His work on large-scale projects, such as equipment installations, also developed his mechanical and structural expertise.

“One of the most beneficial things about being out in the field is watching projects getting implemented and completed,” he said. “That kind of experience helps in communicating the scope of the project and explaining issues to colleagues and the management team.”

Chicago En Route Engineering Center Manager Francisco Montes

Promoting the benefits of engineering helps develops the future workforce for the field, Drouet said. She volunteers with a student chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.

While in college, she interned for two summers in the Great Lakes office and graduated with a bachelor’s of science degree in civil engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She worked as a registered professional engineer in private industry and consulting in Texas, California, and Washington, D.C. before applying to the FAA.

“Part of our job is to spread the word about what the FAA does,” Drouet said. “When I graduated, three to four percent of my class was female. It’s now 20 to 25 percent of the graduating class. We still have a long way to go but it has also been a tremendous benefit to society to see more diversity in the world of engineering.”

Cooper, pointing to his experience, agreed with the value of highlighting opportunities.

“An engineering background and experience is a great foundation for a number of career options within FAA, and in turn, the FAA is a great place to work if you’re an engineer,” he said. “The FAA has a lot of leaders whose roots trace back to an engineering background.”

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