Natalie Smith found her passion for planes as a teen.
“I love airplanes and aviation, all of it, the way jet engines sound and feel, the movement, even smell of an airport,” she said. “Air traffic and air traffic control is a culture unto itself, a fascinating industry and a large part of our nation’s economy.”
An MBA student at Mary Washington, she’s pushed through some turbulent times to build a soaring career – she manages thousands of miles of sky over the nation’s capital. When she went back to school in her 40s, she worried she was in for an even bumpier ride. By the time she’d completed UMW’s Bachelor of Liberal Studies (BLS) degree, she was ready to sign up for more.
“She’s like so many of our BLS students. They’ve achieved incredible success in the business world,” said program director Ana Chichester, who helped turn Smith’s resume into course credit. “BLS rewards that kind of excellence in the workforce.”
Growing up in Ohio, Smith was already ahead of the curve. She took college classes in high school and studied aeronautical engineering at Arizona State University. She left to work in corporate law, and when she decided it was time to make her dream job take flight, her boss begged her to stay. But it was too late. By then, she had her head in the clouds.
“I wanted the excitement of everything surrounding airplanes,” said Smith, who took the civil service exam and aced it, scoring a chance to train with the Federal Aviation Administration.
It was a gamble.If she did poorly, her career would be over before it took off.
Her first official assignment was at a California tower that handled hundreds of thousands of flights every year.
“I learned how to channel stress for a focused purpose,” she said, “to manage the movement of all types of aircraft through the busiest airspace in the world to get people and products to their destinations safely and efficiently.”
She’d continually calculate time and distance, while figuring in weather and winds, security and fuel, emergency needs and noise footprints, to draw moving patterns of traffic inside her head. She had to think quickly and clearly, stay focused, to protect people and property.
Smith was one of few women in air traffic control when she broke into the field in the ’90s. (Females still make up less than 30 percent of the industry.) Still, her career continued to climb. She held post after post along the southern California coast, then landed at Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control in Warrenton, Virginia, where she moved into management.
Since then, she’s worked on some lofty assignments, helping the Marine Corps introduce a new Osprey to D.C. skies, sitting on an implementation safety panel for the Pathfinder drone program and serving powerful clients like the Presidential Airlift Group.
Her hobbies – think Scuba diving and clay shooting – are just as robust. So when her first of two children packed up for college, she knew it was time to step up her game and earn a bachelor’s degree of her own.
“It’s a perfect fit for me,” Smith said of UMW, where she discovered cultural and generational diversity, and touched on new types of technology. “I have absolutely loved all my classes at UMW.”
The Mary Washington courses she’s taken in leadership, financial management, statistics and more – both in the BLS and MBA programs – will help her keep moving up in the commercial, financial and international realms of aviation she hopes to pursue.
“But for her, it was more personal,” said Chichester, who will be at Smith’s honor society induction tomorrow. “It was something she needed to do for herself.”