Aviation Event Specialist, FAA Flight Standards Service’s General Aviation Operations Branch
By Paul Cianciolo, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine Associate Editor
Joe Saunders knew he wanted to fly at age 12. It all started with a trip from Milwaukee to Toronto on a McDonnell Douglas DC-9.
“Once the airplane throttled up, and the acceleration pushed me back into my seat, I was hooked,” Joe recalled. “Then I realized that there were actual people up front driving this thing, and I was in awe. You can get paid for this — sign me up!”
At 15, Joe began flying lessons at Sheboygan County Memorial Airport in Wisconsin. He soloed at 16 and earned his private pilot certificate at 17. He also got a job as a ground handler at the fixed-base operator to further immerse himself in aviation. Refueling and cleaning airplanes helped pay for his flight training.
Though Joe started college at 18, he chose to focus on flying instead. At 21, he became a flight instructor and charter pilot. Two years later, he started flying a Beechcraft 1900 for Skyway Airlines out of Milwaukee. Then at 25, Joe moved up the line to fly for Midwest Airlines. He finished his bachelor’s degree and went on to earn a master’s.
Enticed by the job security of a civil service career, Joe shifted to the FAA in 2014, starting in Minneapolis as an aviation safety inspector (ASI) focused on general aviation operations. He transferred to the Milwaukee Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) the following year.
“The FAA has been a fantastic place to work, and I have grown in my aviation career beyond anything I could have imagined,” Joe said. “Aviation continues to be my passion, and it needs to be nurtured and protected, which is where the FAA comes in.”
While in Milwaukee, Joe was assigned as the inspector in charge of that little airshow in Oshkosh (okay, more like the aviation mecca) for five years running. His experience there allowed him to move up to the FAA headquarters in late 2021 as part of the General Aviation Operations Branch in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service and serve as an aviation event specialist and subject matter expert for public aircraft operations.
The General Aviation Operations Branch is responsible for writing and maintaining policy, including policy for all the gray areas that air shows create. The branch also supports FSDOs with their air show oversight duties and helps them navigate questions that arise.
“As aviation events evolve, one of the challenges is remaining agile and flexible with new technologies and helping develop procedures to allow more participation,” Joe notes. “It is imperative for the FAA to engage with stakeholders to foster a collaborative approach to aviation safety. The FAA must be a world leader in safely integrating these changes into the National Airspace System. The place where these innovations likely make their first appearance is at air shows. Fostering a collaborative approach to safety is how we look to develop new policies and procedures.”
Joe’s advice for safely arriving at an air show is to be prepared and thoroughly plan your flight, understand any NOTAMs, the route, and any restrictions, and have contingencies like airports to divert to if a change is quickly needed.
Experienced and dedicated people like Joe help ensure that everyone can enjoy a safe and efficient air show everywhere in our great nation. Be safe, and see you out there.
Paul Cianciolo is an associate editor and the social media lead for FAA Safety Briefing. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran and an auxiliary airman with Civil Air Patrol.