Chickasaw air traffic controller credits tribe with opportunity
September 1, 2020
It all started as a childhood dream for Chickasaw citizen Dylan Mateo. After hearing a presentation by Chickasaw astronaut John Herrington, a young Mr. Mateo knew he wanted to fly to space. But his mother insisted that space was too far away. So, he opted to stay a bit closer to Earth.
"My sister actually took me out of school that day and I had no idea why she was there," Mr. Mateo said. "I was mad at first but now I'm very glad she did it. I was always fascinated by aviation and as a kid I wanted to be an astronaut. I believe I was in first grade and I got to meet John Herrington and listen to his speech at Oklahoma City Community College. I've always thought about him and been inspired because of that. John Herrington was a really big influence in choosing aviation for me."
Mr. Mateo, 23, of Moore, Okla., earned a bachelor's degree in air traffic management with a minor in business from the University of Oklahoma in 2018. He started his journey at OU as a professional pilot major. After receiving his private pilot's license, he decided he wanted to see things from the perspective of air traffic control and took a course. He enjoyed the course so much he changed his major to air traffic management.
He liked the aspect of a small class setting and how personable his professors were in the air traffic control courses.
"The aviation department is a small department," he said. "You really get to know everyone and you get to know professors and I think that really helps the students do much better versus a larger lecture class setting. Many of the air traffic courses are much smaller than the flying courses. At times there would just be two of us in class and so the one-on-one you get with the professors is just extremely helpful."
During his time at OU, Mr. Mateo utilized the resources the Chickasaw Nation makes available through its Higher Education Department. He credits to the funding for helping him achieve his goals.
"I applied and received lots of Chickasaw Nation grants and scholarships," he said. "I couldn't go without thanking them for taking up half or most of my expenses each semester. It was very much because of the Chickasaw Nation that I was able to continue to go to school."
The first two years of school were dedicated to rules and regulations. The remaining two years of study focused on radar simulation, where you're either in a control tower or a radar facility that helps move air traffic from place to place. OU's course offers the same curricula offered at Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center, which trains all air traffic controllers in the country.
The purpose of an air traffic controller is to provide the safe and expeditious flow of traffic in the National Airspace System. It is a highly lucrative and competitive field with enticing aspects of a high salary and benefits, including mandatory retirement at age 56.
Typically, once a year the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will send out an offer to accept applications for a short span of a few days. To be a controller in the U.S. everyone must train at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City.
"After you turn in your application and if they think you are a good candidate they will give you the opportunity to take Air Traffic Skills Assessment (AT-SA)," Mr. Mateo said. "If you pass that test then they will send you a tentative offer letter. Then you will begin the health and background checks."
Mr. Mateo scored in the "best qualified" category with a score over 90. He has since passed all the health and background checks and has been given a firm offer and a start date with the FAA.
When the FAA hires, it selects from two pools. With the advantage of the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) Hiring Reform Act of 2019, students holding degrees from FAA-approved Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) schools and veterans have an increased chance of being selected ahead of the general public in the hiring pool.
"The previous law stated the FAA had to hire 50/50 from each pool, give or take 10 percent of each," Mr. Mateo said. "What was bad about that was you could have a great number of CTI graduates who had passed the FAA testing, not get hired because of that restraint. So, with the new legislation that was passed the FAA can now hire first from pool 1 before they move on to pool 2. It gives the graduates and veterans a better chance of getting hired."
The first five weeks at the FAA Academy are for the most part what Mr. Mateo had learned in his four years at OU.
"Since I graduated from a CTI school I have the opportunity to opt out of the five weeks of basics, but a little refresher never hurt," he said. "So, I'll get five weeks of basics and then they will split us into one of two categories. The first is a terminal environmental and the second category, and the category I was put into, the enroute center, where I'll work the traffic of the airports getting to and from an airport."
After he completes the five weeks of basics training and 56 days of enroute training at the FAA Academy he'll go to one of the 21 enroute training facilities across the U.S. for additional training. For enroute training the nearest centers are Fort Worth, Texas; Albuquerque, N.M.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Memphis, Tenn.
"After I complete my first set of training that qualifies me for more training, if you can believe that," he said. "They will send me to one of the 21 centers around the country and from there I will train at that center and specifically to their airspace and their rules that they have. Each center has their own set of rules that are informed to their airspace and what's in their airspace. After each step that I will eventually pass I will become a fully certified air traffic controller."
Mr. Mateo's ultimate goal is to end up back in Oklahoma at an airport near home and his family.
"I love my town here in Oklahoma and I love my family," he said. "So, eventually I would like to end up at Will Rogers World Airport. But that would be several years down the road after completing all of my training."
Mr. Mateo is currently working as a lab assistant at OU's air traffic control lab. He also works as a worship director at South Lindsay Baptist Church. He serves on the board of directors for Indian Falls Creek and leads as the worship director. He hopes to continue to serve in these roles as he embarks on his new journey.
Mr. Mateo keeps himself humble and gives all of the credit to his Creator. He relies on his faith to carry him from one chapter of life to the next.
"I truly believe it's because of the Lord that I have everything that I have and that he's given to me," he said. "All of this, it's because of him. As soon as I am out of bed in the morning I say, 'thank you Lord for this new day.' The talents that he's given to me that I have no idea where they came from, but I am thankful for them."
His home church is Glorieta Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, where he has played the piano for several years now.
"My work at Glorieta has led to many opportunities, one being the director of worship for Indian Falls Creek, whose camp hosts the largest gathering of Native American Christians in the world," he said. "I also have the honor of leading music at revivals for Native churches across the state."
Mr. Mateo is the son of John and Lorena Mateo. His Chickasaw lineage comes from his mother, Lorena Mateo, grandfather, Morris Ned Jr., and great-grandparents, Homer and Rena Ned, both from Pontotoc County, Oklahoma.