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Steve Shackelford

Supervisory Air Traffic Control Specialist
Historical Impersonator: Orville and Wilbur Wright
California, USA

Where did you grow up and what were your favorite activities as a child?

I was born in Wichita, Kansas and grew up in northern Oklahoma in a little town named Kaw City, Oklahoma.  The original town of Kaw City that I grew up in is now located at the bottom of the Kaw Dam Reservoir under 80 feet of water because of an Army Corps of Engineers project.  There is a new Kaw City, which is nearby, but it is of modern construction and yet very rural in character.  My favorite activities as a child were playing with batteries, making little electronic circuits, watching the huge thunderstorms clouds build and dissipate and riding my bicycle around.  I remember once taking apart the controls to an electric blanket just to see how it worked.  My parents probably didn't care for that very much.

What were your favorite subjects in school?

My favorite subjects in school were history, science, and music.  Mr. Chambers, my 7th grade science teacher, is especially remembered for his classroom demonstrations.  I like to do that same thing in the meteorology classes that I teach at Long Beach City College.

What were your most difficult or least favorite subjects in school?

I didn't enjoy Latin or Accounting very much and art wasn't my strong suit either.  I got some tutoring and decided that it wasn't in the cards for me to be a Latin scholar or an accountant.  I still like to design things but not that anyone would confuse them with what is normally called "art".  Most of my "designing" these days is when I design and build a garden.  I approach a city government, (e.g. Hawthorne, CA) and volunteer to landscape and install a garden area in a particular location that needs improvement at no cost to the city.  Thus far I have a successful track record using this approach and I usually don't get any resistance from the authorities in charge.  It's a little hard to explain.  Somehow I know that if I have to explain it then they would never understand anyway.  I then design and build the garden, plant flowers, shrubs and various trees, install a sprinkler system, low voltage lighting, perhaps a fountain, benches, a bronze sculpture, topiary and anything else that just "completes" the project.  The neat part is that I maintain it (until the city usually takes over eventually) and nobody knows who I am or who planted that neat little pocket garden or even how or when it was done.  My public gardens just seem to pop out of nowhere and there they are.  Extremely creative gardening is my kind of "art" and my own version of a "public works project".

What inspired you to pursue a career in the aviation field?

My father paid for a ride for me in a helicopter at a county fair when I was a boy.  I really enjoyed it and never forgot it.  One day in college I decided I wanted to learn to fly and I did.  Some years later I decided to become an air traffic specialist and I did that as well.  I would like to someday be able to fly in space.  Youngsters reading this probably will.

What was your career and education path to get to your current position?

I think my formal high school and college education played only a little role in moving me toward my present occupation.  I am a pilot and that had a lot more to do with what I pursued as a career goal.  I have never been a flight instructor.  I fly now and am also an Air Traffic Supervisor for the FAA here in the Los Angeles area.  I started my career as a developmental controller and gradually worked up through the organization as my skills developed and opportunities presented themselves.  Previously I was in the Army and in Viet Nam.  I served as an Armored Reconnaissance Specialist in the 11th Armored Cavalry.  However, not much of what I learned in the military had any lasting civilian counterpart or influence.  I have been teaching for over 20 years.  I started out at Fresno City College and now teach part time both Meteorology and Navigation classes at Long Beach City College.  Frankly, teaching is my real passion in life.  I get great pleasure in conceiving, building and using various demonstration devices in my classroom.  As a result, I can demonstrate a wide variety of meteorological phenomena right there in my classroom, including a sonic boom.  One semester, during the sonic boom demonstration, I cracked the window at the back of the classroom.

What does an Air Traffic Controller do?

Air traffic controllers work in one of three different "options".  An air traffic controller in either the Terminal (think control tower) or the Air Route Traffic Control Center option (think of a big windowless room with lots of radar screens lined up) basically ensures the safe and efficient operation of the national airspace system.  What that means is that they positively separate aircraft and control the flow and arrival of aircraft both enroute and in departure and arrival.

What is an Air Traffic Control Specialist?

ATC specialists in the Flight Service Station option give comprehensive pilot weather briefings, initiate search and rescue operations, issue Notices to Airmen (NOTAMS) and operate the usual live radio traffic you might expect.  They also have a special service called Enroute Flight Advisory Service (EFAS) that warns pilots of hazardous weather along their flight path and provides other essential live air traffic services to pilots.

How does the job differ between a small airport and a large international airport?

The job responsibilities differ from one airport to another because of differences in the frequency of flights, the complexity of the airspace and the different types and speeds of converging aircraft.  The name of the game is to not let any of the marbles touch or even come close.  Safety, of course, is the paramount issue.  Failure is not an option.

What do you like best about your job?

I like helping the specialists that I supervise to do a good job and provide a really valuable service to pilots before and during their flight.  I also enjoy trying to make the working environment as pleasant as possible.

What do you enjoy the least about your work?

I least enjoy disciplining a specialist and in dealing with fatal accidents.

What type of personality do you believe is the most suitable for a job as an Air Traffic Controller?

The ideal employee's personality is outgoing but they must also be very much an attention to detail sort of person.  You have to be able to get along with others in close operational areas and constantly keep a professional attitude.  The job is stressful but not so much so that anyone should be dismayed or discouraged from aspiring to become one of us.  Most days are sort of routine but regularly the action is very hot and heavy and new and interesting aircraft show up all the time.  There is not what I would call a significant number of women in this field.  More women should apply.  The job can be very fulfilling, evenly deeply satisfying.  Many women think that aviation is primarily a man's field of work and by thinking this they are just limiting themselves and their horizons.

Do you prefer to be an Air Traffic Control Specialist or as a Supervisory of Air Traffic Control Specialist?

I prefer my present role as a supervisor primarily it gives me greater satisfaction in what I like to do (dealing with people) and it pays a lot better.

What is your involvement with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA)?

My interest in AIAA is primarily in the area of developing true anti-gravity flight.  This developing technology would essentially make propellers and jet engines instantly obsolete.  Anti-gravity levitation would revolutionize aircraft payloads, range and speed.  It would entirely change the need for extensive highway travel systems and any other mode of surface transportation except for perhaps walking.  Simply, it would have profound changes to about every aspect of our lives.

Why is meteorology of interest to pilots?

A good understanding of aviation meteorology is absolutely essential to any pilot's education.  In fact, each successive license or rating, starting with the private pilot's license, requires a greater depth of understanding of aviation meteorology.  This is because the weather conditions are always changing along a pilot's flight path.  A lack of meteorological understanding will eventually make you an accident statistic.  Your passengers will also be killed.  It is very serious business.

What do you do as "Mr. Weather"?

Each of the "Mr. Weather" productions is a series of stage presentations that are designed to fascinate youngsters and adults in understanding some of the more unusual aspects of meteorology.  They involve numerous demonstrations, exhibits, student participation, hands on experiments and just some totally thrilling "gee whiz" experiments.  Each of the "Mr. Weather" productions is produced one at a time and on an individual request basis.  There are no video copies of these productions for sale at the present time.

How did you begin portraying the Wright Brothers?

I began portraying the Wright Brothers (first as Wilbur Wright) when NASA called one day and asked me to participate in a project called "NASA Quest."  I had traveled to San Jose earlier while involved with delivering a 1903 Wright Flyer replica to NASA for wind tunnel testing.  Apparently some NASA folks heard me tell the unique and interesting stories of the Wright Brothers at some of our presentations.  I was the group historian and spokesperson and they were captivated with the stories.  I acquired my knowledge of the Wright Brothers by reading nearly every book about them that I could find.  I currently have a huge collection of books in the downstairs library and a considerable portion of that library is just Wright Brothers related literature.  Between the two brothers, I can most easily identify with Orville Wright for several reasons.  First, he was alive in my lifetime.  Wilbur died much earlier in 1912.  Secondly, since Orville lived to age 77, he saw many of aviation's later developments that are more familiar to most flyers today.

What are the challenges of portraying Orville or Wilbur in person?  What is the best part about portraying one of them?

The biggest challenge in portraying Orville is in getting down to his body weight.  He weighed about 160 pounds.  I don't.  The best part about portraying either of them is the opportunity to try to become either Wilbur or Orville and to try to answer questions from their perspective.

What are some of the best questions you have received when impersonating one of the Wright Brothers?

One young lady wanted to know how we ate our in flight meal while flying the Wright Flyer.  The answer is that we didn't.  There were no in flight meals in 1903.  Another person wanted to know where the material used to cover the wings of the 1903 Wright Flyer came from.  The answer is that the Wright Brothers needed to find a very dense fabric (meaning high thread count per inch) in order to hinder air from going through the wing's fabric covering.  They eventually got the material meeting their requirements to cover the wings from a women's underwear company there in Dayton, Ohio.

What did you do in the construction of the AIAA Wright Flyer replica?

My primary role was in the wing loading tests and in arranging the transportation to the NASA wind Tunnel.  I found and contacted the truckers willing to do the job, worked out the delivery logistics and planned the itinerary and every stop along the way.  I was solely responsible for the plane's routing, stops, and eventual safe delivery.  The trucking companies did the rest.  Our destination was the NASA Ames research wind tunnel near San Jose, CA.  A wind tunnel is a huge device that allows aircraft (either scale models or full-scale copies) to have their aerodynamics and wind flow patterns tested without the aircraft actually leaving the ground.

What do you find most fascinating about the Wright Brothers first powered airplane?  What inspires you most about them?

The most impressive thing about the 1903 Wright Flyer is that it flew at all.  It was marginally under powered, dynamically unstable and essentially unairworthy.  Other than that it was a good airplane.  The real story, however, is the mechanical skill and determination of both Wilbur and Orville Wright.  This is evident in not only their creating and flying the 1903 Wright Flyer, but also in their continual efforts to improve it to the practical airplane it became by 1905.

What advice do you have for children around the world who may be interested in pursuing a career in some area of aviation?

Let your imagination pull you forward.  If you are interested in something, then plan now to do it or go see it, or even create it.  Probably your idea has never been built or created before and you will be the first to succeed.

Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?

"Imagination is more important than knowledge."  Albert Einstein

- 26 January 2004


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Last Updated:
28 May 2004

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