Flying high: Project management student excels both on the ground and in the air

Donny Cone

Some people know exactly who they are early on in life. Donny Cone is one of these people.

As an air traffic controller for the Federal Aviation Administration, Cone monitors and directs aircraft on the ground and in the air. It’s a job that’s taken him across the country – from West Virginia to Washington – in the span of 16 years, enabling him to build on his skillset with each new location. In fact, it was at a recent station in Washington that inspired Cone to take his career even higher.

“I was in Seattle and went over to the Western Service Center, which is one of our higher-level facilities,” Cone said. “I got into a group called ‘planning and requirements,’ and what we did there is we took in and implemented a lot of the new technology that was coming to the FAA, such as new radar systems, data sharing and text messages to pilots. It was really cool, but that group also looked highly upon project management, which got me thinking.”

After Seattle, Cone took another position in Grand Canyon, Arizona, but he never forgot his time in the Western Service Center. After he saw an advertisement for the University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s Master of Science in Project Management program, something clicked, and Cone enrolled in the university’s online program. Years of hard work followed, but with Cone set to graduate at the end of summer 2023, the end is almost in sight. With his new degree, Cone plans to increase his eligibility for early retirement, a perk that’s difficult to come by within the FAA, and then return to the organization’s planning and requirements division.

“Being an air traffic controller is fun but stressful,” Cone said. “An attractive part of working in the planning and requirements group – or any engineering field within the FAA, really – is that the work is a lot less stressful. So I’m hoping my degree will angle me toward a better position.”

Cone’s wish to increase his enjoyment of the field echoes back to his time in high school, when he took his first flying lessons outside of regular class. This aerial interest soon became a passion – one that eventually shaped not only Cone’s day career, but his hobbies as well. This past autumn, Cone helped crew one of his friend’s hot air balloons at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. While not a race, Cone related there’s definitely some competition involved among participants.

“Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday were the competition days, and so what the competitors will do is drive away from the main site,” Cone said. “They have to go at least a mile away, and the competition becomes flying over this field. In the field they'll set up little x's and circles and whatnot, and everybody will get a bean bag with whatever number they are assigned. People will throw these bean bags from their balloon, trying to hit the targets. I don't want to call it a race, because it's not a speed thing, but it's more of a navigational test.”

Prizes from the fiesta included a new boat, a new car and a hefty cash prize. Cone’s team didn’t manage to snag any prizes this year, but he says that’s okay. He was simply there to help his friend and enjoy the ride.

While the fiesta was all in good fun, Cone’s other summer activity requires a bit more time and dedication. Outside of being an air traffic controller and hot air balloon operator, Cone also works as a flight instructor in the summers. At the Desert Eagle Flight Academy, a part of the Civil Air Patrol organization, Cone teaches cadets to fly airplanes solo, and revealed a lot of preparation goes into their training.

“The cadets only get to fly one hour a day, but when they're not in the air they're with the ground instructors,” said Cone, breaking down the process. “They're learning all the airspace, the aerodynamics, how the airplane works, how weather works, all that kind of stuff. There’s certainly an academic aspect to it all, but the goal is that after the ten hours of flight training, they fly the airplane by themselves, and that’s where I’ve been very successful.”

Cone added that out of the 15 cadets assigned to him in the past four years, 13 were able to fly solo, but the two that didn't weren’t actually eligible to for legal reasons.

“So if you look at it that way, I’ve got a perfect record,” Cone said, smiling.

Overall, Cone has a lot to be happy about. Though it’s not always easy, he plans to continue flying high in every part of his life, from his studies to his work, and it’s hard not to fault him. Because in Cone’s world, the only limit is the sky.