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A Flight Plan for Aviation Engineers

UC Berkeley’s Advanced Aviation Education Program offers students education, real world experience, and a helping hand with educational costs

Wanted: Aviation engineers with theoretical knowledge in aviation/transportation engineering, mathematical modeling experience, as well as business and practical knowledge--to modernize the National Airspace System, expand airport and airspace capacity, build sustainable aviation infrastructure, and develop new procedures and processes to meet predicted increases in air traffic over the coming decades.

It’s a tall order, but thanks to UC Berkeley NEXTOR Deputy Director Jasenka Rakas, students with an interest in aviation have a golden opportunity to acquire the qualifications needed to undertake the responsibilities and challenges that will be required in the field of aviation in the U.S. and around the world in the coming decades.


The National Center of Excellence for Aviation Operations Research (NEXTOR) was founded in 1996. It is a consortium of research scientists from five universities, including UC Berkeley. Research is focused on air traffic problems, air traffic management and control, airline operations, aviation systems planning, safety data analysis, and aviation economics.

Moreover, through the Advanced Aviation Education Program that Rakas helped establish in 2003 at Berkeley, scholarships and internships in government and private industry are available to help students offset their rapidly rising tuition costs, while they gain the necessary experience and contacts they will need to find work in the aviation industry after finishing their schooling.

Rakas, whose postdoctoral studies at ITS Berkeley included pioneering work on mathematical models for analyzing the impact of navigational equipment outages on airspace performance, has also made important contributions in the area of controller-pilot communications and airport operations and planning, particularly in the use of high-fidelity, runway-specific aircraft trajectory data used to model arrival headway distribution.

Filling a need

Through her close associations with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and TRB, she recognized the importance of improving the training and education of the future aviation workforce. 

“The Transportation Research Board has been aware for some time that we will have a shortage of adequately trained professionals in the transportation field in general, as well as in the aviation field in particular,” she said.

Specialized aviation courses are rarely offered in colleges, yet the U.S. National Airspace System is one of the most complex, hierarchical, and dynamic of all civil systems in the world.

Specialized aviation courses are rarely offered in colleges; education in aviation is expensive and time-consuming, she explained. Yet the US National Airspace System is one of the most complex, hierarchical, and dynamic of all civil systems in the world. It requires well-educated, highly skilled leaders.

Clearly the need is there, but the pathway for interested students was not always clear or financially feasible. The Advanced Aviation Educational Program helps provide a solution.

Students come to the UC Berkeley program from many countries and with different educational backgrounds. “Because they bring with them varying levels of knowledge and understanding about aviation principles and paradigms, it is necessary to bring their knowledge to some kind of common ground before they can start utilizing their own research talents,” said Rakas. “It takes a lot of time and effort to systematically educate a student researcher about general aviation engineering principles before we can begin to conduct funded research on more specific aviation topics.”

“My goal is to create a rich educational environment for students—one that enhances their educational portfolio and allows them to make a smooth transition from a research student to a professional [environment].”

“Everyone must benefit,” she adds, “industry, academia, and most importantly, the student.”

So far, the program is succeeding: At any given time about 10 students, graduate as well as senior-level undergraduates, are participating. Internships have been made available to ITS Berkeley students at the FAA and NASA, as well as at CSSI, a Washington, DC company that provides technical services in air traffic management, airport consulting firms such as Jacobs Consultancy in Burlingame and HNTB in Los Angeles, and ATAC Corporation, an airspace design and operations company in Sunnyvale.

Scholarships and other forms of financial assistance are available from a number of different sources including the GEM Fellowships of the National GEM Consortium, the Society of Women Engineers, The Pacific District Conference Scholarship of the National Civil Engineering Honor Society, California Transportation Foundation, Women in Transportation, as well as through research gifts from Raytheon, Los Angeles World Airports, Sensis Corporation, and Jacobs Consultancy. Rakas matches students to scholarships and internships, and helps them find the right graduate school program.

More than 60 students have been associated with the program in the past, and are working around the world—in London, Brussels, Paris, Toulouse, Washington, D.C., Boston, San Francisco, and Berkeley--either in academia or the aviation industry.

Capturing their imaginations

Students’ first introduction to aviation engineering is often the Airport Design (CE153) class Rakas teaches each fall in the University’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. This capstone class allows students to apply what they’ve learned from courses in the civil engineering major and other academic subjects to an airport design project.

Students visit an airport, divide themselves into collaborative teams, and design airport master plans that solve specific problems. The project requires learning many aspects of modernizing an airport, from tackling noise pollution and airspace structure to environmental code conformance for terminal buildings and increased traffic demands on the runway.

More than 60 students have been associated with the program in the past, and are working around the world—in London, Brussels, Paris, Toulouse, Washington, D.C., Boston, San Francisco, and Berkeley.

Students begin to see aviation and airports in a different light, as Rakas infuses her class with not only the mathematics and engineering of aviation, but its art and poetry. Leonardo da Vinci, Venetian painter Carlo Saraceni, Henri Matisse, and the Fauvists all play a role in the class. She uses a graphic artist’s displays of air traffic patterns to help students better understand the complexity of Air Traffic Flow Management, air traffic demand, delays, and airspace capacity.

As the semester ends, students present their completed airport master plans to a panel of professionals who judge them in the same way that potential clients will.

While the design class often hooks fledgling engineers who go into it uncertain that aviation is their field and come out unabashed enthusiasts, a second part of the aviation curriculum consists of new courses with guest lecturers from industry and government covering special topics in aviation infrastructure systems and operations, aviation economics, advanced air traffic management concepts, and airline operations.

Their education doesn’t stop there, though. “Even after they leave our academic environment, they continue to communicate and build professional relations with us by collaborating on research projects.” Some who took the Airport Design Class end up a few years later as members of the jury responsible for evaluating students’ airport design class term projects.

Jasenka Rakas is the director of the Airport Systems Planning and Design Short Course, and a faculty lecturer in the University’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. She is also a founder of the UC Berkeley Airport Design Studio and the National Airspace System Infrastructure Conference. She is vice-chair of the Transportation Research Board Committee (TRB) for Airfield and Airspace Capacity and Delay.

“In the end, we are creating future leaders who will undertake the technological and organizational challenges in the field of aviation in the 21st century. We believe a strong aviation research internship program is an integral part of the academic curriculum, and enables our students to understand, first hand, the economic, operational, legislative and cultural aspects of aviation,” said Rakas.

Students who have participated in the program have been accepted to universities they have applied to for graduate work.

“We’ve had a 100-percent success rate,” says Rakas proudly. Her efforts to inspire, advise, and shepherd them through the thesis process, then recommend them for jobs or, in some cases, further graduate work, scholarships, and internships, have paid off handsomely.

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