It won’t be long before airport terminals across Louisiana become awe-inspiring works of art – thanks in large part to the creative mind of FAA civil engineer Dr. John Dawson, who joined the agency in 2013 to oversee Southwest Region airport planning, programming, design and construction.
Based at the Airports District Office in Fort Worth, Texas, “Dr. J.” is ensuring that design and construction standards are met at 41 airports throughout Louisiana. He is currently working the new terminal projects for Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and Lafayette Regional Airport.
Last year, Dawson earned his Ph.D. in urban planning and public policy from the University of Texas at Arlington. In addition to leading airport terminal design, he has spearheaded engineering projects ranging from pavement rehabilitation to extensive airfield lighting replacement for traditional aircraft, but also including innovative engineering solutions for commercial space launch activities.
A rendering of the interior of the MSY airport terminal. Dawson is overseeing the design and construction. (Image: FAA)
“I can be performing engineering calculations, long-range planning impact evaluation, fiscal analysis of a proposed project and coordinating with Air Traffic, Flight Standards and Technical Operations over a navaid affected by a proposed project -- all before lunch on any given day,” Dawson said. “Not all airports issues, concerns and engineering solutions are necessarily the same.”
Ever since he was was a teenager, Dawson knew what he wanted to do for a living. Since his introduction into architecture, engineering, design and construction while in high school, the idea of creating new things interested and energized him. Since pursuing his passion, he has designed various structures, including roller coasters and houses.
While attending the university as an architecture student, Dawson got his first real-world engineering experience at the Six Flags Over Texas theme park in Arlington, where he oversaw the design and construction of thrill rides, buildings and other support infrastructure.
After graduating from college, he entered the U.S. Air Force, which introduced him to the world of aviation. There, he served over two years with Systems Command, researching and developing the engineering infrastructure support for military aircraft, and served over four years with the Space Command, supporting spacelift and launch-tracking capabilities for both the East and West Coast space-launch and missile installations.
Before joining the FAA, Dawson worked in several high-level positions in his field, including supervisor of realty construction for the General Services Administration, director of facilities planning and lecturer for the University of North Texas and Tarrant County College, architectural manager for Fort Worth’s Department of Public Works, and director of facilities acquisition for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Dawson is an accredited professional in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, a green-building certification program, which he applies to his projects at the FAA. Through applying LEED principles, he is faced with the challenge of balancing sustainability objectives and aviation needs in all of his projects related to airport development.
“When I review airport master plans and airport layout plans, how the development impacts the environment and other neighboring areas are paramount in the evaluation criteria,” he said.
A concept of the new terminal at Lafayette Airport (Image: FAA)
Dawson assists directly in reducing environmental impacts, maintaining high, stable economic growth, and ensuring that the FAA achieves its goals in a way that is consistent with the needs and values of the local community.
When taking on any new project, he considers how it will affect people. The social sciences component of engineering is important to him. Designs and structures should be created to benefit humanity, Dawson believes, including the thousands of people who use the aviation system daily.
“The field of engineering within the FAA is advancing at a tremendous rate,” he said. “The next 10 years will be a fertile ground for anyone interested in developing the next new engineering solution to aid mankind, especially as it relates to aviation or space exploration.”
Learn more about Dawson:
What do you like most about your job?
Every day brings new challenges and opportunities. They range from the opportunity to evaluate a proposed runway overlay versus crack seal project, depending on lifecycle cost, to the mitigating requirements of a runway extension with increased assigned aircraft and an increase in noise levels and noise contours.
How does a background in engineering prepare you for your current job?
The best way to be in a position to oversee the various projects the FAA is involved with is through the sound foundation for the analyzing of challenges, evaluating various possible engineering solutions, and determining the best course of action to deliver the best product or service. The foundation in engineering and its various disciplines allows me the background to guide, instruct and oversee the engineering support being provided to the airports and aviation as a whole to ensure the FAA prime objective for the safest, most efficient aviation system in the world is met.
What advice would you give to an engineering student today?
Stay in school and don’t be a passive consumer of education but an active participant or leader in education. While in middle school or high school, get involved in the sciences, engineering and mathematics environment as early as you can. As they say, “the sky is the limit,” but with the FAA and the current technological advancement trajectory, beyond the stratosphere is the future and even the advancement of earthly bound aircraft is just another field of exploration and opportunity.
Dawson graduates with a Ph.D. in urban planning from UTA at Arlington on Dec. 16, 2016.
What about a new engineer at the FAA?
The FAA uses all disciplines of engineers, not just aeronautical. There is an opportunity for architectural, civil, mechanical, electrical and even industrial engineers, just to list a few.
What are some of the future career avenues at the FAA you foresee for individuals with engineering degrees?
Almost anything you have a passion for ... only limited by your own imagination.
What are your interests and hobbies outside of work?
Until recently, my hobby and focus was to attain a Ph.D., which I accomplished last year. I enjoy music, art, reading, history and any type of research, which have expanded my knowledge and appreciation for engineering and mathematics. The best drummer I knew at the University of North Texas, from world-renowned jazz ensemble One O’Clock Lab Band, used mathematics to hone his percussion performance and become a leading percussionist. Who would have guessed? Engineering is applied mathematics and physics ... mixed with some social sciences. So an interest in music, art and architecture also may be a great launch pad (no pun intended) to improve engineering innovations yet to come.