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The Air Up There Podcast

Inspired: with FAA Administrator Steve Dickson

Season 1, Episode 7
Published: Friday, December 18, 2020

What would the aviation industry be without trailblazers? Well, frankly, it would not be at all.

In our final podcast episode of the season, you'll hear from Administrator Steve Dickson about the path that led him to aviation. But this isn't your standard interview. The person asking the questions is Malik Sinegal, a young aviator whose story is rather remarkable, too.

Read the show notes on our blog.

Inspired: with FAA Administrator Steve Dickson

Inspired: with FAA Administrator Steve Dickson

Transcript

John Croft:
Hi everybody and welcome to another episode of The Air Up There, a podcast about the wide world of aviation. My name is John Croft.

Allison Duquette:
And I'm Allison Duquette.

John Croft:
Allison, guess what today is.

Allison Duquette:
What John?

John Croft:
Today is the final episode of Season One of this podcast.

Allison Duquette:
Well, that season went by quickly. And speaking of season, it's the holiday season, and we could all use a little inspiration right now. So let's talk about careers in aerospace. If you want to learn about aviation or aerospace, it probably helps to learn from someone who's been there and knows the ropes.

John Croft:
Yeah, for sure. A role model is a great idea in a field like aviation, in fact, someone like our boss, FAA administrator, Steve Dickson. We're going to hear a lot about Steve today and his incredible career in aviation starting when he was a child and his fascination with planes through his service in the U.S. Air Force Academy and through the Air Force, flying F-15s and other fighters, and then onward to the airlines and eventually here to the FAA.

Allison Duquette:
So today's interview is a little different and it's a little special. Our reporter doesn't work for the FAA, but he is one of the aviation greats in his own right. So let's talk about him. Malik Sinegal is a pilot and he is 23 years old. Earlier this year, he was certificated to fly a Boeing Triple Seven and is believed by many to be the youngest African-American to achieve that certification. So that's pretty cool. And John, you're a pilot. Is that typical?

John Croft:
Allison, I don't think so. I'm a pilot. I don't fly the heavy iron, but the people who I know who do are usually in their forties or fifties before they fly a plane that size and of that complexity. That's a big machine.

Allison Duquette:
Okay. So what did Malik do to get him to this point?

John Croft:
Well, like a lot of young people, he was inspired to be a pilot at a young age. He went to college for it. Graduated from Delta State University in Mississippi, where he majored in commercial aviation. Beyond that, he's a general aviation flight instructor. He's a commercial pilot. He's an air transport rated pilot, and it's pretty obvious he's dedicated to the field of aviation.

Allison Duquette:
Okay. So let's take a listen to Malik and Steve's conversation over Zoom.

Malik Sinegal:
Good morning, Administrator. It's such an amazing opportunity to be able to talk to you. I've heard so much about you, especially when you were at Delta for a while. I think you're an amazing person and your story has really inspired us. Again, my name is Malik Sinegal and I'm from Biloxi, Mississippi. So yeah, whenever you're ready, start doing our questions.

Steve Dixon:
Well, thanks, Malik, and it's a pleasure to be with you and please call me Steve, if you will. But I'm excited about the great start that you're off to in your professional life. So you've got an exciting story to tell, and I think very inspirational as well. So it's a privilege to be with you.

Malik Sinegal:
Thank you so much. So I see that you're interest in aviation started very, very early. I just would like to know what first sparked your interest in airplanes?

Steve Dixon:
Well, my dad was a military pilot and actually we share a little bit of a common heritage in the sense that my mom actually had a piano scholarship to Delta State when it was Delta State Teacher's College back in the fifties. And she ended up going to nursing school, but my parents met in Mississippi when my father was going through flight school in the Air Force. And my grandfather was in the Army in World War II. My father went to West Point and decided to become an Air Force officer and a pilot. And so my interest really started when I was very young, really probably four or five years old, actually, when I would … He would leave for what seemed like a little kid to be long periods of time, because he would have to go on deployments and come back.

Steve Dixon:
And so we were always excited for him to come home. But my mom would take my little brother and I out sometimes to the airport, because this was in the Air Force base. This was when they would go out and do a lot of practice landings because they didn't really have full flight simulators at the time. So a lot of the training that they did was much more in the airplane. So they would have to go out and do practice approaches and all that, a lot of stuff that you do on the simulator now. So I had a chance to see. I would know that that was his airplane flying around in the traffic pattern. And at the time it was a B-47, which was one of the first swept wing, jet engine, jet airplanes.

Steve Dixon:
And so that's really where my interest started was just knowing what his career was. And I think a lot of us want to be like role models that we have, a lot of times our parents, but it could be a teacher or another mentor that exposes us to an opportunity. And that's where my interest really started.

Malik Sinegal:
Definitely. So when did you take your first flight?

Steve Dixon:
Well, that was actually for the … We were in the process of moving. My family had moved up to Dayton, Ohio, which holds a special place in aviation. That's where the Wright Brothers were from. But my dad was stationed at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and he got an assignment to go to Ankara, Turkey. So we were going to … Our family was moving to Turkey. But in route there was the New York World's Fair. And I think it was fall of 1964, 1965. And so my parents actually were already up in New York and one of our neighbors put my brother and I on a TWA flight by ourselves from Dayton to New York City. And so that was my first flight on an airplane when I was probably, I guess, about seven years old.

Malik Sinegal:
How about that. Okay. So when was your first flight as actually a pilot? How about that?

Steve Dixon:
Well, it was … So my first flight as a pilot really was … A few times as a teenager, my father had friends who would go out to the Aero Club and I got a chance to be at the controls. But really my first full time as a pilot … I never flew as a teenager growing up. So it was really after I was at the Air Force Academy going into my junior year. You have the T-41 program out there. That was … Now I had done before that, between my freshman and sophomore year, they had a soaring program. So I actually soloed in gliders when I was, I guess I was probably 18 at the time out in Colorado Springs. And that was my first time being in an airplane by myself. And then a couple of years later in the T-41 program. T-41 is essentially a turbocharged Cessna 172. It's what they use in their basic flight school program out at the Air Force Academy. And it was one of the precursors to actually going to pilot training in the Air Force after I graduated.

Malik Sinegal:
Yeah. It's such an amazing story. And so I've read a lot about you. I've seen all the airplanes that you've flown. So what is your favorite airplane that you've flown professionally and why?

Steve Dixon:
Well, I mean, my favorite airplane was the F-15. And a lot of that was because of the mission and the design of the airplane and the performance of it. It was just, it was a great airplane. The air-to-air mission was very exciting, very dynamic. It taught you a lot about decision-making and judgment and how to … and a lot about leadership too, because you're … When you check out as a flight lead and an instructor, you're operating as a crew in a way, but it's just that the other crew members are in a different airplane. And so if you're leading a four-ship or … I had the opportunity to lead probably 80-ship, 80-airplane packages at some exercises and learned a lot about flying and had the opportunity to do a lot of flying in Europe. And a lot on some of the tactical ranges in particular, in the Western part of the U.S. So that was the, the coolest airplane I've ever flown.

Steve Dixon:
Now, commercially, for big jets, I think my favorite airplane is the 757 and it just was … It's comfortable. It performs very well. And it was a groundbreaking design because the 757 and the 767 were the first airplanes that were built that had extended twin engine operations out over the ocean. And one of my dad flew the B-47, for example, he never could believe for his entire aviation life that even after he retired, that we flew across the ocean on two engines. Because they needed, they had six engines on the B-47. And that just shows you the advances in reliability of the airframe and the engines that had been made over those couple of decades. And the 757 design dates from really the late seventies and early eighties. And it really was a very capable airplane. So I'd say overall, that was probably my favorite commercial jet to fly.

Malik Sinegal:
Yeah. It was such an amazing airplane. I hate they stopped building it. So this is the thing that most intrigues me about you. You worked really hard in the Air Force Academy, and I see that you had a desire to work on medicine. So how did that shift? What made you go from the medical field to aviation?

Steve Dixon:
Yeah, it was … I had met … Through my dad's acquaintances, I had met some of the flight surgeons, Air Force flight surgeons, and my dad had couple of close friends who were flight docs and always had a lot of respect for what they did. And I was interested in chemistry and biology in addition to engineering when I was going through high school. And so I thought, "Well, how about the best of both worlds? Maybe I'll be a flight surgeon and be able to fly." And when I got to the Air Force Academy, I actually started out as a chemistry major. And after a semester I decided. I was in the environment and decided that what I really wanted to do was get my wings and fly airplanes. So I decided to shift to engineering sciences, which was essentially a combination of aeronautical and mechanical engineering and decided to get my engineering degree and never have had any regrets about that, but it certainly was a different path I could have taken. I just decided to go full into aviation.

Malik Sinegal:
Gotcha. Yeah, it seems very, very hard. I know I couldn't do it.

Steve Dixon:
I'll bet you could. I mean, you've already accomplished a tremendous, a lot, tremendous. I think about what I was doing while I was 23 years old and it wasn't getting a triple seven type rating. So …

Malik Sinegal:
Thank you. So as you know, pilots are about a nature of the word leaders. So what life skills do you feel like people need to have in the cockpit and how would they translate to life outside of the cockpit?

Steve Dixon:
Yeah, that's a really great question. And I think that there's a multifaceted answer there. It used to be, I would say back in the probably seventies and earlier that that being part of a crew, it was fairly autocratic. And by that, I mean, there was a formal chain of command and then whatever the captain said, that's what everybody had to do. And what the industry has realized and what the science has shown over the years is that you really need to be able to be an open and collaborative leader. And really that's how … There's a lot that you learn about team building and about helping the fellow members of your team. Even if you're in a leadership role, understand how to back decisions and really the importance of explaining why you're doing certain things.

Steve Dixon:
So I think that one of the things I learned about leadership was the importance of being open and communicating and listening when you can. Now, sometimes you have to make … Because ultimately the leader has to make decisions and you want to make informed decisions. When you're flying, you want to understand what the weather is. You want to understand the runway configuration. What the approaches are. You want to be prepared. Right? And so you put a lot into preparation, but there's no flight ever goes exactly the way that you had planned.

Steve Dixon:
There's always some little thing. And sometimes a big thing that may cause a divert. There might be a system problem with the airplane. There are all kinds of things that can happen. So the more prepared you are, the more ready you are to handle those items, and you need to be able to work as a team.

Steve Dixon:
And so the other thing is you have to realize that no human being … Our cognitive skills don't allow us to know everything all the time. And so there are things that … If you're flying in a two pilot airplane, or if you're flying in a multi ship formation … There are things the other pilots and the other crew members will see you that you don't have. So, you want them to feel open and that they can talk to you and say, "Hey, you might want to look at this, or you might want to look at that, or this, I see this over here." And that's how you gather all of that information to be able to make informed safety decisions so that you can have a safe outcome of your flight.

Steve Dixon:
So I think really to wrap this up, really, I think the most important thing I learned about leadership was being open and collaborative and being a good listener so that you can make decisions. And then when you have to make a decision without … Based on the limited facts, because it has to be made quickly … Then everyone will trust you in doing that because they know that the reason you're making a quick decision is that you didn't have time to consult with everybody.

Malik Sinegal:
Definitely. Yeah, I think the biggest misconceptions, when young people go into the airlines as a first officer, they think they're just the first officer. To me, I feel like the airlines are hiring you as a future captain. So going by that-

Steve Dixon:
In fact, Malik, I used to … Every new hire class at Delta … And we hired. In my last few years, we hired probably three or 4,000 pilots. And I spoke to every new hire class. And the first thing I told them was … After I congratulated them for being there, because there were a lot of people. A lot of people who would want to be in the seats that they were sitting in. The first thing I told them was "You're not here because you're a good pilot. We expect that you know how to fly. You're here because we think you're an outstanding leader and you'll be a great captain." And that's what you really want. And again, that's not an autocratic thing. That's really understanding how to build the team and how to be open and collaborative when you make decisions.

Malik Sinegal:
Most definitely, most definitely. So the biggest question is, if you were to start your aviation career completely over again, what would you do differently? You are very successful.

Steve Dixon:
Well, no, I mean, there were a lot of things. There were a lot of places where you come to a fork in the road or the opportunity to make different decisions. And I don't know that … I mean, I've been very blessed and I don't know that there's a lot that I would do differently. I think that maybe the first thing might be to … I think sometimes when you're young, you're always thinking about your next accomplishment. When you get into a fighter squad, it's "Okay, when am I going to, when am I going to be a two ship flight lead? Or when am I going to be a four ship or when are they going to check me out as an instructor? Or when will I be a large force employment mission commander?" Same thing at the airlines. "When am I going to upgrade? Or when am I going to move to wide body equipment and fly international?"

Steve Dixon:
And I think there's a lot to be said, as you get older, for really being in the moment, enjoying the moment for what it is. You never really know. My dad told me something that I always remembered when I was having challenges either as a cadet or going through a time that was difficult, is that you wake up every morning and think about that's another chance to excel, another chance to be your best. And so I think that being humble, being thankful for what you have and doing the best that you can at the job that you have, that's really the best way to prepare for that next step. I think sometimes we get a little wrapped up into preparing ourselves for the next step and that's important, but we don't necessarily stop and enjoy those years.

Malik Sinegal:
Definitely.

Steve Dixon:
As much as we probably could.

Malik Sinegal:
Definitely, most definitely. Yeah, often it seems like you're driving down a road and you think that's the end of the road, but then it keeps going. So definitely taught me a lot about this during the pandemic with everything that's going on in the aviation industry.

Steve Dixon:
Yeah, well, yeah, and I think there are a lot of lessons being learned in the pandemic. I always feel like with any challenge, there are going to be opportunities. You've faced challenges. Right? You were furloughed.

Malik Sinegal:
Definitely.

Steve Dixon:
So there's a door that closed for you. I've had doors that have closed for me in the past, and that actually ended up creating an opportunity. So you just need to be ready to take advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves.

Malik Sinegal:
Oh, definitely, definitely. My advice to anybody, it's just, I know it may be hard now, but don't stop.

Steve Dixon:
That's right.

Malik Sinegal:
The biggest advice is if I wouldn't have got furloughed, I would've never got the 8320 and triple seven type rating. I would've never been able to go to my interview at my dream company. So everything happens for a reason, you know?

Steve Dixon:
Absolutely. And I think keeping that kind of attitude is really, really important, because I think that's how we're all going to be successful.

Malik Sinegal:
Most definitely. So is there any other things you want to say to the young people who are, that want to get into aviation? Is there any last minute advice you want to give them?

Steve Dixon:
Well, I would just say don't let anybody tell you that you can't accomplish something. There were things that I thought, "Boy, I'm not sure I could ever do that." And as it turned out, I was able to do it. And so don't be intimidated. Make sure that you're well-prepared. I always felt like, in sports, you want the practice to be two or three times as hard as the game. So be prepared for everything, for your milestone as you move through.

Steve Dixon:
And also, I really do think despite the challenges that the industry's going through and frankly, all society is going through right now, this, this is one of the most exciting times, maybe the most exciting time in aviation and aerospace industry. And there are so many opportunities with space travel and unmanned systems and new designs that really couldn't have been imagined just a few years ago. And so there are a lot of different ways to get into aviation. You and I sort of came up through the more traditional way, with flight school and that type of thing. But there are ways to … and applications for aerospace nowadays that didn't exist back when I was growing up. So there's a lot of different ways to get involved in an aerospace career nowadays. And I think that those who are ready for it are going to really have a great future.

Malik Sinegal:
Definitely. The one thing I hate is a lot of … Growing up a lot of people say, "Well, you'll never be a pilot because you don't have 2020 vision or you're not tall enough." So hopefully, they just let that go and continue striving for your goal. As I always say, "Crows can't hang with Eagles." So keep trying. Climb as high as you can.

Malik Sinegal:
All right, Administrator Dixon, so I know a lot of people want to become pilots, but there's also a lot of people who want to become mechanics, aerospace professionals, drone pilots. Is there any advice that you have for them or people who want to become one of those different pathways?

Steve Dixon:
Well, I, I just think that there are … We've been talking a lot about the path to becoming either military or commercial airline pilot. And that's only one of many, many careers in aerospace. And there are frankly, I think more opportunities nowadays than there ever have been before. And it seems like as technology continues to advance, there are opportunities to get into aviation and even space in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. For example, I was down at Kennedy Space Center for the first NASA Crew Dragon launch, the first operational launch a couple of weeks ago. And had the chance to be with about 25 or so middle and high school students and talk to them about opportunities in aerospace careers, whether you're interested in engineering or being an astronaut.

Steve Dixon:
And we're seeing the beginnings of low earth orbit essentially being commercialized. And it used to be up until these commercial space companies and really the pivot from government launches to commercial space back in the mid-2000s … So it's taken about 15 years or so … But now we're seeing private companies doing what it took countries to do before. And so that whole lower earth orbit … SpaceX for example, has, I think, over 900 high-speed internet satellites that they put up. And they've actually, pretty soon, I think within a few years, they will have more satellites on orbit than the entire history of space programs of all countries over the decades. So there's a lot of exciting stuff going on there.

Steve Dixon:
Part 107 drone pilot is another one. My son is actually, has a videography business and he's a drone pilot. Matter of fact, after I became FAA Administrator, when he got his drone pilot's license, he sent me a screenshot of his license with my signature at the bottom of it, which I thought was pretty cool. So all kinds of applications there.

Steve Dixon:
Tremendous opportunities for mechanics. A lot of mechanics decide to get their pilot's license. So when you start on one path, it may actually open others up after you get started in the career. So I just think that there's just tremendous opportunities and really the sky is no longer the limit. It's actually outer space now. So it could be a more exciting time, I think, for young people to get into our business.

Malik Sinegal:
Definitely. And I see, well, you said that the kids were down here. I could only imagine what their faces looked like, seeing a rocket launch for the first time. Because I lived in Biloxi, Mississippi, and we had Stennis Space Center, maybe 50 miles away. And you could still feel the rocket engines just rattling your windows. So cam i tell me about that? What was it like for the kids down there?

Steve Dixon:
Oh, it's exciting. Well, we were about four miles away from the actual launch. I had the opportunity to actually go out to the launch pad. And I remember watching the space shuttle launch from several miles away. But again, that was a government operation. This was actually a private company that's built … That people will eventually be able to buy a seat on. And the FAA is actually responsible for licensing those launches because we're responsible for the safety of the public and national security, for everything that needs to be accounted for during the launch trajectory. And we've got to remember the FAA runs the air traffic control system. And that's another career opportunity, is air traffic control. So again, a lot of exciting ways to get into aviation. And I think a lot of opportunities for anyone who's interested.

Malik Sinegal:
Like I said, I really do appreciate this conversation. It was amazing, finally talking to you. Hate we had to hit it over Zoom. And one day I hope I can meet you in person.

Steve Dixon:
Oh, I look forward to it, yeah.

Malik Sinegal:
Definitely.

Steve Dixon:
I'll be cheering you on in your career and congratulations on all your accomplishments. You got off to a great start. And I know you're going to do great things in the coming years so good luck.

Malik Sinegal:
Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Steve Dixon:
Let's stay connected.

Malik Sinegal:
Will do. Sounds great. Thank you so much.

Steve Dixon:
My pleasure.

Speaker 5:
Illegal air charter operations pose a serious safety hazard to the traveling public. The FAA works hard to identify and shut down rogue operators and to help passengers ensure the company they hire is legitimate. If you choose to charter an aircraft, do your research to make sure the company is doing things right. The FAA's Safe Charter website has the information you need, including red flags to look for and questions you should ask. Visit faa.gov/go/safeaircharter for more.

John Croft:
Well, that was really cool. The Administrator sure comes alive when he's talking about aviation, in particular, the next generation of aviation and the aerospace workforce. You can hear his passion shine through.

Allison Duquette:
You sure can, John. And one thing I thought was really great about this interview was that even if you don't want to become a pilot, there's a takeaway for you. If you're a young person, I think what you learned from this is that you need a role model. You need some experience. You need some exposure. You need to look for opportunities. And if you're an adult, be that inspiration for a young person. Like Steve said, he had those people in his life. So if you have an amazing career or something you're excited about and you love doing, share it with a young person. Get them in the airplane. Get them to the hanger, or get them to whatever it is that you do in life that you're inspired about and share it with them. And you might just be that person that really makes an impact on them.

John Croft:
That's awesome, Allison. Thanks for wrapping it up so well, and we'll be back next year with another season of The Air Up There.

Allison Duquette:
If you liked today's show, share it with someone. We also invite you to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. Don't forget to follow us on social media. You'll find us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube. Happy holidays.