Photo above – Shelly deZevallos with a Baron B58. She was being photographed for the ‘Top 30 Women of Houston’ event that she was awarded in 2021.
By Penny Rafferty Hamilton, Ph.D.
Shelly deZevallos is one of those stellar women in aviation who is as comfortable with a wrench on the spinner of her twin Beechcraft Baron 58 as she is flying in the left seat. She is committed to mentoring and bringing more women into the exciting world of aviation and aerospace. As the mother of twin girls, she hopes one day they will fly, too. Shelly is quite the role model. Graduate degrees, excellent presentation skills, significant aviation knowledge, experience, and skills. She is one of the better multi-taskers in our industry.
How did you first get inspired to work in the aviation industry?
“I’ve always been inspired by aviators and the aviation industry. My first ‘job’ in the industry was sweeping hangars when I was 8 years old. I basically grew up at my dad’s business – he ran (and still does) a flight school, an airport, and aircraft sales. My dad flew, my grandfather flew – I really grew up as a kid thinking everyone flew just like everyone was driving! I realized when I was about 13 or 14 years old that most people did not fly – and I’ve been working on getting more people to learn to fly ever since!
I didn’t always know if I wanted to work in the aviation industry – but always knew I wanted to fly. Two things in life you can never replace are time and people. Flying helps mitigate the loosing time that you can’t replace issue. My other comment: Never waste your time with people who waste your time. Life is short — surround yourself with folks who lift others up – including you!
My dad taught me a lot about flying – when I was 14, he sat me down and said he was going to teach me to fly – so that If I couldn’t make it through college, I’d have a backup plan. That advice turned out to be one of the most important lessons of my life – backup plans! So – when I was 16, he taught me to fly — okay – he tried to teach me how to fly. You know how hard it is to teach one of your kids to drive? Well – it’s just as hard, maybe a bit harder, to teach them how to fly. C.G. “Hank” Henry was the instructor who did the last couple of hours with me before I soloed. He was an amazing man – was West Houston Airport’s Chief Pilot for decades – and still one of the most accomplished pilots I’ve ever met. He always said, ‘Aviate. Navigate. Communicate,’ – which means first and always first – fly the plane. Then figure out where you are and where you want to go. Then, let others know where you are going.
A few years after earning a degree in college (I did finish–and become the first person in my family to earn a college degree) Cessna Aircraft Company (now TextronAir) started building the single engine piston line in 1995 – the first aircraft delivered in November of 1996, after a 10-year production halt due to liability laws. I wanted to help bring those new airplanes to every flight school in the country, so I applied and became a regional sales manager for Cessna. It was a dream job for several years – I covered Texas and most surrounding states – flying and demonstrating the single engine line– Skyhawks, Skylanes, Stationairs and turbo Skylane and turbo Stationair. Great planes – great company! It all ended in a fell swoop after 9/11 when thousands of employees were laid off in a matter of 18 months, of which I was just one. I had just started working on my MBA when I was laid off – those studies kept me busy – and I worked in software sales for a short time. Then I became a contractor with AOPA – advocating for issues across Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, and Louisiana. I was doing what I loved to do – policy, flying and advocating for pilots! I stayed with AOPA for several years – testified in front of legislators and met many others – and several state aviation directors like Tom Baca (New Mexico Aviation Director), David Fulton (TxDOT), and Vic Byrd (Oklahoma).
With my work now, as president of West Houston Airport and the same company my dad founded, I have the opportunity to work with great leaders such as Dan Harmon – Director of Aviation at the Texas Department of Transportation – in my role as Chair of the Texas DOT Aviation Advisory Committee.”
What was your first memory of aviation?
“Sweeping hangars and alphabetizing ‘Jepp Charts’ (Jeppesen charts) are my first memories of aviation. My dad was in the charter and flight school business. My sister and I would file Jepp Charts for him when we would get back from school or on the weekends – occasionally I’d mess up one- oops! For those of us you who are younger than me – under 45/50ish – you used to have to update the Jeppesen charts manually – each airport’s approach was printed on a piece of paper – and you had to carry those in a binder (binders) with all the approach plates when you flew. I’d file those approach plates and learn the names of cities and states across the country (nailed geography in high school). Those early tasks of sweeping hangars and alphabetizing Jepps were my first memories of aviation.”
Who inspired you the most?
“My dad – Woody Lesikar. Pilot. Entrepreneur. Businessman. Airport Owner. Dad Extraordinaire. He taught me the value of hard work, persistence, dreams, learning and public service. When I was a kid about 8 or 9, I remember going into a bookstore with him. My sister and I had looked around and I found four or five books I wanted to read. I’ll never forget going up to him and asking him which one I should get. He said, ‘Sweetie, whatever books you promise to read, I promise to get them for you.’ That was the impetus of my learning and the start of a lifelong passion of reading. I’ll never forget when he was going through one of the roughest financial times of his life – and he still bought me books.
When I was 16 years old – I started my trek to college — I waitressed and worked in the Texas Legislature to help pay for expenses. We were so broke our church pastor drove up to Austin and gave me a $600 check to help pay for tuition and apartment rent. Years later when I was laid off at Cessna, Dad didn’t cajole me – he told me to learn from it – use my back up plan. Thousands of people around our country had gone through so much more on 9/11– loss of a family member, war, economic depression, entire families being laid off. ‘Get up’. ‘Keep working.’ Sometimes our biggest lessons are learned from our failures.
Just like flying…it’s not necessarily the good landings we always learn from – at times it’s the bad ones where we have to react and recover quickly that we learn the most from.”
Advice for the other women inside our industry or thinking about aviation and aerospace?
“Go for it!!!! So many women have taken those first steps in aviation and aerospace to help the industry move forward. The Aviation and Aerospace industry is literally on the cusp of a phenomenal change – we’re about to put in Urban Air Mobility and Advanced Air Mobility that is going to be an entirely new industry! These are literally some of the most exciting times in our industry and some of the best times in terms of employment opportunities.”
Any additional background about you and your career that readers should know?
“I’d like to refer to one of my first responses – about having a backup plan. Just like an airplane – and flying – have a backup plan. My dad taught me to fly so I would have a ‘back up ‘plan in case I couldn’t finish college. It was sound advice for life overall and I’ve followed it ever since. Life has ups and downs – being prepared and having a back up plan is something I’ve always believed – just like airplane systems are. As an example, when I was laid off from Cessna – I immediately started utilizing my MBA. Just like systems in flight – you have a compass and directional gyro (DG). You have hydraulics to lower a landing gear, or you can do so manually. (NOTE: airplane systems and backups are not always the exact same). EVERY industry has its ups and downs – so we must make sure we have our OWN back up plans. Mine has been my education. Yours may be your hobby turned into a passion or an education or another industry entirely. If you can sell an airplane, you can sell a car or a software program or a widget of some kind. I personally ended up utilizing my education – including my doctorate (in Aviation and Aerospace science) – as an adjunct professor for a couple of years and research into policy questions. When I lost my job at Cessna I was devastated. It hurt. So many people lost their jobs there – even husband and wife teams – I was able to fall back on my MBA and go into software sales – which I wasn’t great at because I didn’t have the same passion that I did for aviation – but I kept moving forward. Keep flying. Always fly the plane. Aviate. Navigate. Communicate. Never give up on YOUR passion. Never give up on what keeps YOU moving forward. NEVER quit flying. It’s the most exciting career out there!”
Shelly Lesikar deZevallos is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A & M University, and Oklahoma State University. She volunteers as a Board member of the National Business Aviation Association and for the Experimental Aircraft Association. Living in the Houston-area with her aviator husband, Chris, the deZevallos family contributes time and talent to their community. Shelly is a recipient of the Houston Business Journal “Women Who Mean Business Award.” She serves on the Advisory Board of The Boeing Center for Aviation and Aerospace Safety at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. She is President of the West Houston Airport and chairs the Texas Department of Transportation Aviation Advisory Committee. I sum up the flight path of Dr. deZevallos with a Rosalynn Carter quote, “You have to have confidence in your ability, and then be tough enough to follow through.”