A Passion for Flight
Zachery Coleman Jones used to gaze into the sky at the white trails of exhaust from airplanes and wonder how something so heavy could fly around as if it were lighter than air. Jones showed an early aptitude for math and science, and his mother, recognizing this in her son, involved him in the NASA Science, Engineering, Mathematics, and Aerospace Academy, or SEMAA, project. As a teenager, Jones learned how airplanes fly and grew to love the field of aerospace. Today, Jones is an engineer, designing commercial aircraft for one of the world's largest manufacturers of commercial jetliners.
In which NASA student opportunity project did you participate, and how did you get involved in it?
I participated in the NASA Science, Engineering, Mathematics, and Aerospace Academy, or SEMAA, project at Warren County High School in Warrenton, N.C. My mother, Lucy Bailey-Jones, is a family and consumer sciences teacher at Warren County High School, and she got me involved in the project through fellow colleagues, Warren County SEMAA administrative assistant Jacqueline Leath and Warren County SEMAA Aeronautics Education Laboratory coordinator Stanley Brothers. My mother early discovered that I had a rapidly growing interest and talent in science and mathematics, and she wanted to provide a project that would allow me to validate future professional goals and let me have fun doing it as a young teenager. I was a student participant in the NASA SEMAA project as an eighth-grader during the winter of 2000. A few years later, during the summer of 2003, I became a NASA SEMAA volunteer in the Aeronautics Education Laboratory.
I went on to participate in a second NASA project during my sophomore summer in high school called the NASA Summer High School Apprenticeship Research Program, or SHARP+, in partnership with Hampton University and NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
Explain the research you conducted through your NASA involvement, and why this topic is important.
Early projects involved learning about Bernoulli's principle, conducting flight tests with our own model aircraft built from paper and balsa wood, and sketching our own turbojet aircraft designs on poster boards. I particularly liked these activities because they allowed young students like me to fuse both a child's creativity and aerospace principles to get an idea of how one day we could use our own mature adult imaginations, along with more acquired aerospace knowledge, to actually improve the real aerospace industry. During this time, I was introduced to the Aeronautics Education Laboratory, or AEL, which was headed by Stanley Brothers. This interactive, aeronautical lab contained everything from commercial flight simulators to GPS satellite receivers to a subsonic wind tunnel that played an immense part in growing my familiarity with common aerospace tools and keeping my overall passion in the aerospace field. At the conclusion of my NASA SEMAA experience, for my early strong showing of passion in aerospace technology through the NASA SEMAA project, former North Carolina Rep. Eva M. Clayton presented me with a math and science outstanding student medal.
Warren County NASA SEMAA AEL coordinator Stanley Brothers eventually became my "personal mentor" during the project as Stanley began to give me options and ideas on how to further progress my pursuit in an aerospace career. Stanley, being a North Carolina State University alumnus, played an important role in my ultimate college decision as I eventually ended up graduating with a bachelor of science in aerospace engineering with cum laude honors from North Carolina State University in 2008. The most important thing learned from all the NASA SEMAA activities was that all people, with acquired knowledge and dedication towards their fields of study, can use their own creative minds to help develop this world into a much better place.
The second time I participated in the SEMAA project was in the form of a volunteer during the late summer of 2003. As a rising high school senior at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, located in Durham, N.C., one of the requirements for graduation was that I do at least 60-80 hours in the form of community service. As a SEMAA volunteer, I got the chance to be reunited with my mentor, Stanley Brothers, by assisting him in the AEL. Working in the AEL further allowed me to grow my passion and love for aerospace by using my acquired knowledge of instruments such as flight simulators, GPS satellite receivers and low-speed (subsonic) wind tunnels to teach and inspire the younger SEMAA generations to admire aerospace technology. In early August of that same year, we took the student participants to Washington, D.C., to view the National Air & Space Museum. That trip was a huge success as the students got to see, in person, the physical rewards of hard work and continued dedication towards the aerospace industry. At the same time, I was giving back to SEMAA what it had once given to me, and there is no better feeling than rewarding the future.
The third, and most gratifying part of my NASA SEMAA experience, was when NASA Headquarters invited me to the NASA SEMAA Directors Conference in Washington, D.C., to receive the 2006 NASA SEMAA Next Generation Pioneer Award in recognition of my long-term participation in the NASA SEMAA project and my recent accomplishments related to the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. Several top NASA officials were in attendance, and upon acceptance of the award, I gave a five-minute speech describing my NASA SEMAA experience as a participant and volunteer, and the long-term rewards that the NASA SEMAA project can provide for this nation's youth in the development of the STEM professional workforce. A few weeks after the conference, I received a congratulatory letter from North Carolina Sen. Douglas E. Berger wishing me continued success in my aerospace studies and describing how deserving I was of the high honor by NASA.
What has been the most exciting part of your research?
The most exciting part of my NASA SEMAA experience was designing a canard business jet for an impressive $25.8 million as an eighth-grader, using the AEL design simulation software. The AEL design simulation software incorporated everything from weight, payload, range, seating capacity, wing type, wing sweep, engine layout and empennage (rear) configuration. At the time, that aircraft design was very impressive for an eighth-grader to develop as a comparable modern business jet to the Bombardier Learjet 85 (a primarily composite business jet still in development) which is on the market at $17.2 million a unit. That NASA SEMAA activity was of significant importance to me because aircraft design engineering eventually became my current professional career today at Boeing Commercial Airplanes in Everett, Wash., on the 787 Dreamliner program, which is also a primarily composite-structure aircraft.
What is your educational background and what are your future educational plans?
I earned my high school diploma from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in 2004. The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics is one of the top high schools in the country and the first high school geared towards specializing in the field of STEM. I earned my bachelor of science in aerospace engineering, cum laude honors, from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., in 2008. In 2009, I earned a graduate certificate in Aircraft Composite Structural Analysis & Design from the University of Washington.
I have future interest in obtaining either a master of business administration or master of aerospace engineering degree to improve my professional responsibility and technical contributions to The Boeing Company.
What inspired you to choose the education/career field you did?
My inspiration to become an aerospace engineer was fueled by a combination of experiences throughout my early childhood and collegiate years that kept me motivated to achieve the career I wanted. When I was a young child, I would stand out in the front yard and look up at engine exhaust trails of commercial airliners high in the sky. I would think to myself: "Man, I wonder how people build things that appear lighter than air?!" A couple of years later in grade school, I began to demonstrate a strong showing in science and mathematics, and my mother made it a top priority to surround me with clubs and activities such as science fairs, math competitions, National Beta Club, Boy Scouts of America, and, of course, NASA SEMAA, that would allow me to freely and comfortably mature my scholastic and social knowledge. Through NASA SEMAA, I also participated in the Experimental Aircraft Association's Young Eagles program, which was a flight initiative program targeted towards passionate youth. The EAA Young Eagles provided me with my first childhood flying experience ever as I flew in a Beechcraft Musketeer C23 "Sundowner" aircraft and later on a Waco biplane (open cockpit) over the North Carolina springtime countryside in Henderson, N.C., on May 12, 2001. My first flight experience through the EAA Young Eagles' partnership with NASA SEMAA was an exhilarating experience that sealed the deal for me to pursue an aerospace career educationally.
During the summers of my collegiate years at North Carolina State University, I kept my aerospace passion strong by working four aerospace internships on both commercial and military programs. Three internships were at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Engines of United Technologies Corporation in East Hartford, Conn., and one internship was at Boeing Commercial Airplanes in Everett, Wash. My early exposure to the aerospace industry at Pratt & Whitney and Boeing, which ranged from working on the F135 engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter "Lightning II," to the PW4000-112 engine for the Boeing 777 commercial airliner, to systems integration on the 787 Dreamliner, provided a motivational catalyst to study hard and succeed in a very challenging aerospace engineering curriculum during each collegiate academic year. The aerospace internships also allowed me to learn the business culture of the aerospace industry and the combination of technical, communication and leadership skills required to succeed in it. As a result, my inspiration to become an aerospace engineer was initiated by a child's imagination, cultivated by grade-school clubs and activities, and scholastically matured by my internship experiences throughout my collegiate years at North Carolina State University.
What do you think will be the most important things you'll take away from your involvement with NASA?
The most important thing that I took away from the NASA SEMAA project was that no matter what background you may come from, if you have the passion and desire to truly become great in the aerospace field, NASA's support will provide youth with the necessary technical foundation to go as far as their passion and dreams will take them.
The NASA SEMAA project was originally designed to increase the participation and retention of historically underrepresented youth in the STEM fields. NASA SEMAA is a very important project as it promotes students early on to pursue careers in STEM, which are vital for getting the best performance out of future military, government and industry jobs, as well as supplying the next generation of great thinkers needed to maintain U.S. leadership and dominance in engineering, technology and innovation. Throughout recent years, I must say that NASA SEMAA has done a magnificent job, as it allowed a young boy in rural North Carolina that could once just only look up at aircraft in the sky to now design industry-leading aircraft on an everyday basis with the largest aerospace and defense contractor in the world at The Boeing Company. I loved the mission statement of NASA SEMAA so much that I returned to the project as a volunteer during my senior year of high school to give back to NASA SEMAA and other youth what it had originally given to me, and there is no better feeling than rewarding the future. Ever since my NASA SEMAA experience, my passion for aerospace has taken me to places I used to only be able to dream about, and since that passion is still strong, I can only anticipate in excitement about the future career opportunities that await me.
How do you think your NASA involvement will affect your future?
Since completion of the project as a youth, my involvement with NASA SEMAA has already heavily affected future life between project completion and as a young man today. The involvement with NASA as a child gave me an everlasting hunger and passion for aerospace.
During my collegiate years at North Carolina State University, I participated in four internships, three at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Engines of United Technologies Corporation and one at Boeing Commercial Airplanes in Everett, Wash. After graduating, I began my aircraft structural design engineering career at Boeing Commercial Airplanes on the 787 Dreamliner Outboard Wing Box. In conjunction with my first year at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, I performed graduate studies and graduated from the University of Washington with a graduate certificate in Aircraft Composite Structural Analysis & Design. The most recent exciting moment of my aerospace career was when I was featured in the company-wide video of the 787 Dreamliner First Flight at Boeing Commercial Airplanes on Dec. 15, 2009. One of my professional mentors and Boeing Technical Principal, William H. Graham, got the two first flight test pilots, Mike Carriker and Randy Neville, to sign my 787-8 model aircraft.
As far as the future beyond, my involvement with NASA will be a constant reminder that no matter how tough the challenges may be, I will always have the passion and desire to belong with the elite of the aerospace industry.
What are your future career plans?
My future career plan is to ultimately become a managerial executive or technical expert within The Boeing Company on future aircraft programs. As of right now, I have future interest in obtaining either a master of business administration or master of aerospace engineering degree to qualify myself for larger professional responsibility and technical contributions necessary to acquire those leadership roles at The Boeing Company.
What advice would you have for other students who are interested in becoming involved with, or working for, NASA?
I offer four points of advice to young students who are interested in becoming involved with NASA or working in the STEM field in general: Make sure that you have a passion for what you really want to do in life. Always take your passion seriously, treat every day like it is your first. Never quit on your passion as there will always be challenges along the way to true success in it. Find a mentor that will allow you to mature and coach your passion along the way.
NASA Science, Engineering, Mathematics, and Aerospace Academy
Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services