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An unexpected career in aviation

Kara Bymers | 29 Feb 2016 | Comments

While I had always found the aviation industry intriguing, I never really thought it was a career choice for me until I joined Atkins over nine years ago. People often think I design airplanes when I tell them I work in aviation. Ironically, my uncle works for Boeing in Seattle as a mechanical engineer and does design airplanes, as do others at my firm. But that’s not me—I prefer to design the airports.

Qantas A380
Quantas' A380, the world's largest passenger airliner.

Anywhere a plane goes, like runways, taxiways, and aprons—I’ve likely had a hand in designing, as well as a few places designed for them not to go—like safety areas and perimeter roads. Whenever I design a project, the safety of passengers and the public is the first thing on my mind. I also consider things like people’s time spent in the aircraft, because no one wants to be stuck waiting to get off a plane. Every project I work on is different—each with its unique challenges—but at the end of the day when you see your plans and designs turned into a finished project, it’s unbelievably rewarding. I love traveling through the airports I’ve helped design, seeing how many people are using what I’ve helped develop, and best of all—getting a birds-eye view of my work from the window seat.

“Whenever I design a project, the safety
  of passengers and the public is the
  first thing on my mind.”

MSY rendering
Rendering of the new MSY terminal.

I got my start in aviation designing small general aviation airports in Nevada and California. These are the kind of airports used by little two-seater planes and private owners. One day I actually met Clint Eastwood who had just flown his helicopter in that morning. My first experience with large commercial airports was an apron reconstruction at the McCarran International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas. Then a year later, I took a leap of faith and moved to Houston to design Texas airports—and it is true, everything is bigger in Texas. There, I worked as a design engineer for the widening and relocation of a main taxiway at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH).

The knowledge gained from that project allowed me the opportunity to work on my most esteemed project to date, the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport’s (MSY) long-term infrastructure development plan. This project included the design of a brand new terminal at the north of the New Orleans airport. Called “the most transformative project for New Orleans since the Superdome” by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, not only did this mean a new terminal, but also new taxiways, apron pavement, aircraft parking, utilities, a parking garage, future hotel, and more. It was the first project in which I was designated the Engineer of Record (E.O.R.), putting my signature and personal seal on the airside civil improvements. Growing up in Reno, I never imagined that my first E.O.R. project would be in Louisiana. I have come a long ways—both physically and professionally. I felt truly valued and appreciated for my hard work, and knew I had finally accumulated the knowledge necessary to sign those drawings.

MSY Ground breaking
The ground breaking ceremony at MSY Airport. Atkins' Justin Jones pictured second from left.

My success at MSY has afforded me yet another great opportunity. I recently accepted an assignment in Dallas, TX and have been living here for only a few short weeks. I’ve already been to both the Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) and Dallas Love Field (DAL) airports more times than I can count. It’s exciting watching an airplane take off at DAL or drive under an A380 at DFW, knowing that I will be playing a role in creating those safe takeoffs and landings.

While I never planned on having a career in aviation, now that I’m in this field, I couldn’t be happier with my career path. I’ve been fortunate enough to design projects at many airports—from big to small and in many different states. I’ve been able to travel and work with some great engineers and colleagues, and I can’t wait for what’s next. Planes keep getting bigger, airports continue to grow and become more technically advanced. I’m looking forward to helping solve our future transportation challenges.

Soutwest Take Off
My up close and personal view from the taxiway as a Southwest plane takes off.

I’m looking forward to helping solve our future transportation challenges.”

If I had just one recommendation for those getting started in their careers, I would say be sure to venture out of your comfort zone (at least once) and be willing to take that step into the unknown, because unless you leap, you’ll never know all the great places you might land. And relax, chances are it will be an airport that I, or one of my Atkins colleagues has worked on—designed with you in mind.