Photo above – Former co-workers of Denise Garcia (center) during the 22nd Fighter Squadron F-15 Maintainers Reunion at the Weisbrod Museum in Pueblo CO.
By Penny Rafferty Hamilton, Ph.D.
Denise Garcia is the Deputy Administrator for the MassDOT Aeronautics Division overseeing aviation administration and policy matters for the Commonwealth. Denise began her career at MassDOT 22 years ago as an aviation planner with what was then the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission – the forerunner of the MassDOT Aeronautics Division.
Before joining MassDOT, Denise worked for the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport) as a noise abatement technician and communications specialist in Airport Operations at Logan Airport and had a distinguished aviation maintenance and leadership career in the U.S. Air Force.
How did you first get inspired to work in the aviation industry?
“My first flight in a Cessna 150 is one I’ll never forget because it was a turning point in my life. After suddenly losing my mom at 15, I was having a tough time adjusting. A family friend took me flying in his plane which was based at Middleboro Airport in Massachusetts. Once we left the airport and headed south over Narraganset Bay, he let me fly the plane. Taking the controls that day gave me a chance to see the world from a new perspective and move past my sorrow. Once I got into the plane, I was completely focused on flying and taking in the beautiful views of the coastline. That’s the moment I became excited about my future and knew I wanted to travel and see the world after graduation.
At 17, I enlisted in the Air Force. My first career choice was air traffic control but there weren’t any openings at the time, so I enlisted as an aircraft mechanic. After Vietnam, the military was promoting Equal Employment Opportunity, so they had just opened non-traditional fields such as aircraft maintenance to women. I became one of the first women in the military to serve as an aircraft crew chief. Some people were betting I wouldn’t last one month on the flight line, so I set out to prove them wrong and never looked back.
I continued my career in military aviation and spent 22 years in the Air Force where I worked on the SR-71, F-15. F-16, and A-10 fleet of aircraft at military bases worldwide and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Professional Aeronautics and a Master’s degree in Aviation/Aerospace Management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.”
What’s your first memory of aviation?
“When I was in the 6th grade, our class went on a school field trip to Otis AFB in Bourne, Massachusetts. The highlight of our trip was a tour of the air traffic control tower. I was immediately impressed by the “bird’s eye view” of the airfield and the teamwork of the controllers. One of my best memories from that day was using their binoculars to gain a close-up view of the aircraft. My dad loaned me his prized Brownie Reflex camera for the trip and to my surprise they made an exception to the rules and allowed me to take pictures from the control tower. I came home beaming that afternoon. It inspired my interest in aviation and photography!”
Who has inspired you the most (any mentors you want to mention)?
“Looking back, I’ve had some wonderful co-workers and mentors who’ve helped shape my career. I learned a great deal about teamwork and tenacity as an airman in basic training and met many people from diverse backgrounds who encouraged me to push on through early morning runs, unpleasant assignments (such as KP duty), and many other training obstacles. Our military training instructors Tech Sergeant Stapper and Sergeant Johnson (See photo above) were tough on us but great role models who turned 50 new trainees into a strong team of professional young women ready to take on new challenges!
Later in my career, a former Maintenance Officer from Bitburg Air Base in Germany, Captain Glen Davis, (who is now a retired two-star general) took a chance and selected me as a new flight chief to manage a group of 50 F-15 mechanics. This was a role that I didn’t believe I was ready for but was one of the best assignments I ever had. I deployed to Al Kharj Air Base in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War with this great group of men and women, and many of them have since become life-long friends. Once I’d settled into my role as a flight chief, our Maintenance Branch Chief, Frank Sanchez, gave me some tough advice on getting out of my comfort zone and taking on new assignments to better position myself for future promotions. Following that talk, I took his advice and was selected for a new job in Maintenance Supervision.
What I love the most about aviation is that it’s always challenging, and you never stop learning!” (Photo at right – Denise with Chief Sanchez (left) and General Davis, taken at the 22nd Fighter Squadron F-15 Maintainers Reunion at the Weisbrod Museum in Pueblo CO in September 2022.)
Advice for other women inside our industry or thinking about aviation and aerospace?
“This industry is a great career choice for women because the field is very diverse and offers many opportunities for personal and professional growth. I enjoy speaking with young women about their future career prospects because outreach is such an important part of what we do in aviation.
I’m always excited to see students learning about aviation and STEM education at a young age. But everyone isn’t fortunate enough to have that experience. That’s why it’s so important for us to get out to the schools to educate students on the possible career choices that are available to them.
My advice to women in this industry would be to believe in yourself! If you have a dream, pursue it, and ignore those who try to stop you! You’ll have setbacks along the way but be persistent and don’t give up on your goals! There will always be people who doubt you, but no one knows your strengths better than you do. Align yourself with positive people and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
If your organization has a mentorship program, sign up. If there is a job posting that interests you, go for it! Most employers want to hire people with passion and a strong work ethic and don’t expect the candidates to know everything about the job before hiring them.
Become familiar with the industry organizations and resources available to you that support your interests and career goals. Volunteer to join a committee or narrate a conference panel and become an active member of the group. The relationships you build through those associations will often open new doors and prepare you for future leadership roles.”
“My affiliation with industry organizations such as the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO) has opened many doors for me and further enriched my career through networking and professional development. It’s always exciting to attend NASAO events and serve on aviation committees to discuss airport industry challenges and new innovations in technology with other state aviation officials. It has also been my honor to represent NASAO as the recently appointed Regional Director for New England, serving CT, MA, ME, NH, RI, and VT. Additionally, I’ve learned about the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and its resources through my interactions with NASAO. Since that introduction, I have participated on many speaking panels, research, and synthesis projects, Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) committees with focus on Aviation Administration & Policy and Aviation System Planning and serve as an ACRP Ambassador.
After working in aviation for 49 years I can see that my career has come full circle, starting with the military, and still working with them at MassDOT on airport projects in a new but still relevant way. I’ve experienced many highpoints in my career on both the military and civil side that included an incentive flight (photo at right) in the back seat of an F-15 where I experienced the effects of 7.5 g’s and a negative 2g dive – without getting sick, supporting the trio of world record setting flights as a maintainer in the SR-71 Blackbird program at Beale AFB where the speed and altitude records were set in July 1976 and still stand today, serving my country in the SW Asia theater in support of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, a long rewarding career at MassDOT and having the privilege of traveling to 26 countries and meeting many interesting people from very diverse backgrounds and cultures. Aviation is a very rewarding field to work in. I hope that when I retire from MassDOT in four years, I will have contributed enough to inspire others and to have made a difference in this industry.”