A World of Opportunity
Your Aviation Dreams Can Take Flight in Flight Program Operations
By Kate Knorr and Allison Krumsiek, FAA Flight Program Operations
When you were young, staring dreamily out of your window during school, did you believe you could fly right into the future? Or maybe you dreamed about leaving on a jet plane? Or thought you could fly higher than an eagle?
How did you think you’d get there? Some kids who dream about working in aviation think about becoming a commercial pilot. Maybe they’ve flown somewhere on vacation and got to peek into or even visit the flight deck, marveling at all the displays and controls. Some people cannot help but gaze at everything flying across the sky and wonder where that flight is heading and if they may be at the controls of a flight one day. There are many pathways to realizing that dream. In civil aviation, it’s learning to flight instruct, banner tow, or crop dust. In military aviation, it’s flying everything from helicopters to fighter jets to heavy transports. If you’re fascinated by flying, but being a pilot isn’t for you, maybe you could become a flight attendant, dispatcher, or mechanic.
Let’s face it, it’s just as easy to daydream as an adult. Only instead of being in class, you’re probably in a meeting, or on your eighth Zoom call of the day. Either way, whether you are a chronological kid or just a kid at heart when it comes to aviation, most people don’t realize that there’s another way for their dreams to take flight — with the Federal Aviation Administration!
Working with the FAA, whether it’s as a pilot, a mission specialist, dispatcher, mechanic, engineer, or program manager, has some enticing benefits. Well sure, it does come with the full suite of federal government benefits like healthcare, annual and sick leave, and a surprising amount of work/life balance. But it also offers the opportunity to do work that just isn’t done anywhere else or by anybody else. Let’s take a look.
Nobody flies the way that FAA’s Flight Program Operations does. In order to conduct flight inspections, our pilots take off and land, but they also make multiple passes at very specific altitudes in order to assess their targets. Pilots also fly as part of the research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) support and critical event response/transportation missions. For example, if you’re flying an RDT&E support mission to evaluate 5G wireless network interference, you might also find yourself flying a team over the Super Bowl, like a Flight Program Operations team did in February 2022. Or you could be headed to somewhere that just experienced the worst day in its history because of a hurricane, delivering emergency relief supplies and the equipment needed to enable first responders to arrive on the scene.
Like the airlines, Flight Program Operations does require its pilots to have an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate or at least 1,500 total hours of flight time. Once pilots get to the FAA, we train them to 14 CFR part 135 standards, including all the usual topics like operational control, weight and balance, weather, principles of navigation, survival equipment, aircraft performance and airport analysis, instrument procedures, airport ground operational safety, crew resource management, and other aviation subjects. Knowing how to fly a plane is one thing, but knowing how to work with teams across the National Airspace System (NAS) in order to perform work like flight inspection, RDT&E support, and critical event response takes some special skills.
Nobody flies the way that Flight Program Operations does.
One of the unique things about pilots in Flight Program Operations actually is a benefit of the more traditional kind — you’re likely to spend most of your weekends at home. That is, of course, as long as you’re not on a trip to one of the more remote flight inspection locales that are under the FAA’s purview — places like Antarctica, Guam, or Alaska.
Are you the type of person who wants to be on the airplane, but is not responsible for flying it? Or maybe you have a pilot certificate, but it isn’t at ATP level or you don’t have 1,500 total hours of flight time. Then the spot for you could be in the back of the aircraft. Mission specialists have the opportunity to learn and use the highly specialized flight inspection and RDT&E equipment that is housed in the Flight Program Operations fleet. They take the measurements, record the observations, and file the daily flight log at the end of the day. An indispensable part of the team, these folks are around and on aircraft all the time. They know how to work with the pilots so as to accomplish the mission and let the pilots focus on the flying.
Additional pilot development programs under consideration may help mission specialists move into the pilot seat. The program will train these individuals as second-in-command pilots who can earn hours toward an ATP certificate, creating a generation of pilots who understand the mission back to front, not just front to back.
Scheduling and Dispatch
The Operations Control Center (OCC) is definitely the nerve center that keeps the rest of the Flight Program Operations body working at its best. OCC team members manage aircraft flight hours flown in support of our flight operations, improving scheduling processes and increasing scheduling efficiencies. The OCC dispatchers do so much more than release and receive flights. They provide flight following and all the work that one would expect, like initiating, diverting, and terminating flight operations; exercising operational control through flight release and flight locating; verifying pilot qualifications and aircraft airworthiness; advising on weather, and transmitting load manifests, among many other tasks. These positions require a FAA dispatch certificate.
But we’re also asking them to think creatively and help us rethink how we plan out our work. This involves collecting new data, looking farther into the future, and doing a deeper dive into the analysis to ensure that work is done by the best crew and at the best time — ahead of schedule and without any interruption to the safety and efficiency of the NAS.
While flying missions is incredibly important, the core business of Flight Program Operations is conducting safe flight operations. Safe flights can’t happen without a dedicated maintenance team taking care of our fleet. Remember, nobody flies airplanes the way that Flight Program Operations does. That means that our mechanics cannot be complacent. They are constantly called upon to solve hard problems and ensure the availability of aircraft to fly missions when needed. To ensure we are where we need to be in this area, Flight Program Operations holds a certificate as a 14 CFR part 145 repair station, and it’s one of the few organizations in the country that has an accepted safety management system (SMS) that covers both a part 135 and a part 145 certificate.
In addition to hiring experienced mechanics, Flight Program Operations has teamed up with the federal Recent Graduate Pathway Program to accept candidates into a two-year maintenance training program. The program’s primary goal is to recruit, train, and provide an entry-level experience to a recent graduate, in the federal government, after successfully completing a customized training program. This customized maintenance training helps candidates obtain an aerospace engineering technician position. The two-year training program provides a combination of in-classroom and on-the-job training, with work assignments similar to those done by current aerospace engineering technicians.
Flight Program Operations has almost 400 team members, more than 300 of whom work for Aircraft Operations and Aircraft Maintenance.
Have we mentioned that nobody flies the way Flight Program Operations does? It’s true, and it’s because the work that we do is highly specialized, both in the back of the aircraft and the front. Aerospace engineering technicians in Flight Program Operations need to be able to think nimbly and creatively about how to accomplish the one-of-a-kind missions that we need to achieve. Do you need to be able to outfit an aircraft in short order to help measure potential 5G interference? No problem. Is the cost of fuel hitting the stratosphere? Ask yourself how we can streamline and miniaturize our bread-and-butter flight inspection equipment so that it weighs hundreds of pounds less. Even better, make it easily removable so that aircraft can be fitted with seats instead of equipment racks to more easily support our critical response/transportation mission.
Even the best pilot or mechanic can’t get an airplane off the ground if nobody has purchased the fuel. The administration team in Flight Program Operations still has to have, or develop, a lot of specialized knowledge about aviation. They use it to do a little bit of everything, short of actually flying or fixing the aircraft.
From procuring the fuel, to processing travel, to maintaining contracts, to producing data for analysis, to attracting, recruiting, and hiring the best talent, to keeping up with the paperwork on the official partnerships that Flight Program Operations and the FAA enter into, there isn’t a lot that doesn’t pass this administrative team. Their diverse backgrounds and education allow them to tackle any challenge thrown at them.
Policy and Communications
In addition to following regulations and policy, Flight Program Operations provides the national policy and standards for all FAA flight operations, for both traditional and remote aircraft systems. That means that anytime anybody flies anything for the FAA, whether they’re on board, or controlling it from the ground, they do so according to policy that Flight Program Operations has developed and coordinated. The people who work on policy and communications within Flight Program Operations not only have the opportunity to work alongside aviation subject matter experts to help build policy, they then get to talk about it in plain language, sharing it with larger audiences across the organization, across the agency, and with the American public.
Safety and Training
Remember that first-of-its-kind SMS that we mentioned earlier? It was developed by a cross-organizational team from all the parts of Flight Program Operations. But it’s administered, along with other crucial safety and safety reporting programs, by a team specifically dedicated to flight program safety.
Why mention safety and training in the same breath? It brings us right back to the fact that nobody flies like Flight Program Operations. In the end, both flying and maintaining aircraft, as well as the missions themselves, are highly specialized and highly technical. Becoming, and remaining, a pilot or aircraft mechanic is hard. There is a lot of information to remember, and specialized processes have to be repeated the same way every time. In order to maintain safe operations, training and safety have to continuously improve in unison. Sometimes it’s standard training to ensure that pilots maintain their currency in a particular aircraft type. At other times it is specialized training on how to perform flight inspections. Our recurrent training is periodically customized to focus on issues identified in our safety system so we can continuously improve.
Flight Program Operations offers a wide range of aviation career opportunities at many locations throughout the United States.
A Team, Together
Our mantra in Flight Program Operations is, “One Team, One Mission!” We are part of the FAA Air Traffic Organization and offer a wide range of aviation career opportunities at many locations throughout the United States. Even though our team of aviation professionals represents diverse backgrounds, locations, and specialties, they work hand-in-hand to conduct safe operations and accomplish the mission. To learn more about career opportunities available at the FAA visit faa.gov/jobs.
Kate Knorr is a senior advisor to the vice president of FAA’s Flight Program Operations and a member of its policy and communications team. She is nearly always writing or editing something, whether it’s an email, an article, a program plan, or a policy memo.Allison Krumsiek is a technical and communications writer for the FAA’s Flight Program Operations policy and communications team. She carries a red pen in her purse and can often be found editing signs around the D.C. area to conform to the Chicago Manual of Style guidelines on serial commas.