Capt. Burton Dicht of New York enjoys sharing his knowledge of aerospace engineering with youth
Posted on October 14, 2021 at 9:00 AM by Virginia Smith
Capt. Burton Dicht, far right, has been in Civil Air Patrol more than 8 years.
October 13, 2021
Meet Capt. Burton Dicht of New York wing, Internal AEO for New York Wing as well as the AEO for both the New York City Group and Phoenix Composite Squadron (NER-NY-301). First drawn to an interest in aerospace when he was a young boy watching the Apollo program, he became an aerospace engineer working in the aerospace industry. Now he is the Director of Student and Academic Education Programs for the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). He volunteers at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City and was invited to speak at a Civil Air Patrol meeting by a member who also volunteered at the museum. That led to his more than eight-year CAP journey, which he calls "a wonderful and educationally expanding experience." This year, he won the Frank G. Brewer Memorial Award, Senior Member Category, a national CAP award which recognizes "outstanding contributions out of selfless devotion" to advancing youth in aerospace activities. "While I am an aerospace engineer," he says, "I have learned a great deal more through CAP and its high quality AE program." Messages of thanks that he has received from cadets as well as from the students in the classrooms he visits during external activities are some of the rewarding experiences of his journey. "I know not every cadet or student is interested in an aerospace career, but my message to them is you can aspire to do great things," he says. "I’ve heard back from many cadets about what they learned from my sessions and my stories. I’ve also done extensive external AE activities, visiting schools and conducting AEX programs. The students are not shy; they tell you how they feel and it is so satisfying to hear how much they learned and enjoyed the activities." We asked him some questions about his Civil Air Patrol journey and aerospace engineer career. His answers follow.
Tell us about your duty positions and your unit.
AEO, Phoenix Composite Squadron – NER-NY-301
AEO, New York City Group – NER-NY-015
Internal AEO, New York Wing
Historian - Phoenix Composite Squadron – NER-NY-301
How did you get involved in Civil Air Patrol?
I am a volunteer exhibit explainer at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City. As a volunteer you get to meet a lot of interesting people, including former crew members, former military and those interested in the military, aviation and space. So we talk and learn a lot about each other. One of the individuals I met and befriended was Intrepid volunteer Sami Steigmann. Sami was actually Capt. Steigmann, the commander of the Phoenix Composite Squadron. He learned that I was an aerospace engineer, and he invited me to speak at a squadron meeting. This is back in 2013. My topic was Engineering an Aerospace Career. It was so much fun, and I got a lot of great questions from the cadets and senior members. Capt. Steigmann invited me back to conduct a hands-on activity. It was soon after that he invited me to join CAP and the squadron, and by that time I was hooked.
How many years have you been in Civil Air Patrol? Tell us about your CAP career path that led to your current role.
I joined CAP in June 2013, so I’ve been involved for more than eight years. When I joined, I was aware of CAP and the role CAP played in aviation, but I was not familiar at all with the depth and breadth of programs that CAP has that serve as conduits for professional development. So I was a little slow in starting my training. Early on Capt. Steigmann asked me to assist with the aerospace education program. I embraced that, and I learned a great deal from Lt. Col. Jacqui Sturgess, who was an advisor to the squadron and my mentor. I enrolled in the AE specialty track, and as Capt. Steigmann completed his term as the commander, the new commander Lt. Col. Michael Woolfolk (then Capt. Woolfolk) asked me to take on the position of squadron AEO. I accepted, with my own internal understanding that I had a lot to learn myself.
But it has been a wonderful and educationally expanding experience. While I am an aerospace engineer, I have learned a great deal more through CAP and its high quality AE program. As I continued with my squadron duties I was soon asked to become an assistant AEO for the New York City Group and then became the AEO in August 2017. My growth in CAP continued as I was asked to serve as an Internal AEO for the New York Wing in August 2020. I thought at first the challenge of managing three positions would be too much, but I’ve been able to channel my experience and knowledge to best serve each position. It has been a very rewarding journey.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your Civil Air Patrol experience?
The most rewarding aspect of CAP is the impact you can have on other people’s lives. CAP does that every day in carrying out its missions. For me, it’s about sharing my knowledge of aerospace with the cadets with the intent of inspiring them to see themselves contributing to our aerospace legacy. I know not every cadet or student is interested in an aerospace career, but my message to them is you can aspire to do great things. I’ve heard back from many cadets about what they learned from my sessions and my stories. I’ve also done extensive external AE activities, visiting schools and conducting AEX programs. The students are not shy, they tell you how they feel, and it is so satisfying to hear how much they learned and enjoyed the activities. A great treat is getting the thank you notes that the teachers usually ask the students to send. It’s a great feeling to know you have had an impact on someone’s life and CAP provides so many of those opportunities to me.
Is there anything else about your aerospace education background that you'd like to include (education/awards/etc.) within and outside of CAP?
My background is as a mechanical engineer working in the aerospace industry. I’ve worked as a NASA intern at the Kennedy Space Center (1980), for Rockwell Space Transportation Systems Division (Space Shuttle Payload Integration) and Northrop Grumman (Advanced Fighter Aircraft Design). I’m also a space historian, having written numerous articles on space history and I’ve made more than 50 presentations at universities, community groups and professional organizations.
I’m proud of the recognition I have received over the last few years from all of my volunteer activities. As I noted earlier, the satisfaction comes from the impact I am having.
• Master rated in Aerospace Education and I have my technician rating as an Historian. I also earned the Yeager Award
• Frank G Brewer Award National Award (Senior Member) – 2021
• Frank G. Brewer Award Northeast Region – 2021
• AEO of the Year Northeast Region – 2019
• AEO of the Year New York Wing – 2019
• AEO of the Year New York Wing – 2015
• AEO of the Year New York City Group – (multiple)
• CAP Achievement Award (multiple at the squadron, group and wing levels)
Nominated by CAP
• The President’s Volunteer Service Award – Lifetime Achievement – 2021
• The President’s Volunteer Service Award – 2018
• The President’s Volunteer Service Award – 2016
National Space Society (NSS – A space advocacy group – I am the VP of Membership)
• Space Advocate of the Year – 2020
• Award for Excellence – 2017
• Volunteer of the Month – Dec. 2017
• Volunteer of the Month – May 2013
Northeast High School Alumni Association
• Service Award – 2015
Fellow – American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) – 2012 (This is a high grade of membership that you must be elected to. Only 4 percent of members receive it. I was recognized for my contributions to students and the profession)
Tell us about your career outside of Civil Air Patrol. Why did you choose aerospace engineering?
I’ve joked with students and cadets that I chose aerospace because I like things that go very fast and make a lot of noise. That is true, but I first became entranced by aerospace because of the Apollo program. I was 10 years old when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. I was in awe. I just couldn’t believe we did that, and I wanted to learn how we did it so I could do great things like that as well. I studied and learned as much as I could. I had the great fortune of going to a high school that has an aerospace magnet school and an after-school space (STEM) program called Project SPARC (Space Research Capsule).
The program was started in 1962 by an amazing physics teacher, Robert Montgomery, who wanted to get students interested in space. I applied and was accepted and I actually became a student astronaut. We built our own capsule, and I was on a 24-hour simulated space flight. It was an amazing experience for a high school student. The program still exists today, and I serve as the Director of the Boosters. The program lost its funding several years ago and I organized an effort to raise money. Today, more than 300 students are involved. And I recently led a summer camp session where we used CAP’s air-launched paper rockets as an exercise.
Capt. Dicht in high school, center, wears an actual Mercury spacesuit in this photo showing his fellow student astronauts and him after a simulated 24-hour spaceflight.
The influence of Apollo led me to study mechanical engineering. A great experience during my time in college was interning at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida during the summer of 1980. It was an exciting time to be there as they were getting ready to launch space shuttles. I learned so much that helped develop me professionally. When I graduated, I knew I wanted to work in aerospace. Unfortunately there was a federal job freeze at that time so NASA was not in offering. So I moved to Los Angeles to work for Northrop and to design fighter planes in 1982.
I did take a detour from planes and went to work for Rockwell Space Transportation Systems Division in 1984 on space shuttle payload integration. But I ultimately went back to Northrop. I had a great career there working on such aircraft as the F-5E, F-20A, YF-23A and the F/A-18 Super Hornet. At Northrop I got involved in my professional society, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). It was through ASME I got involved in STEM outreach, making my first visit to a middle school to talk about engineering. It was good prep for my work in CAP. I ultimately left Northrop to go back to school to get a Master’s degree in History.
At that point I made the leap to working for professional associations. First ASME and now currently for IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers) where I am the Director of Student and Academic Education Programs. A main focus of my position is STEM outreach and creating an awareness of engineering and technology and inspiring students to pursue STEM careers. So it goes well with my position in CAP.
*Engineering Career History
• Director of Student & Academic Education Programs: IEEE
August 2011 to Present
• Managing Director of Knowledge and Community: ASME
January 1999 to August 2011
• Lead Engineer: Northrop Grumman Corp
1982 to 1983 and 1985 to 1992
• Member of Technical Staff: Rockwell STSD
• Engineering Intern: NASA Kennedy Space Center
May 1980 to August 1980
*Between 1993 and 1998 I went to graduate school, worked as a writer for a business writing company and I worked for a congressman.
Why do you work in the Aerospace Education mission area? Why do you encourage youth in the Aerospace Education area?
Aerospace has been an interest, my passion, a hobby and my profession for most of my life. Being part of CAP’s AE mission is a natural and seamless extension. I do it because I care about it and I’m committed to supporting the CAP mission in every way I can. We are all shaped by the events, experiences and people we encounter from the earliest days of our lives. Aerospace to me is about excitement, curiosity and even awe.
I show a video to cadets and students of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy side boosters both making a synchronous vertical landing. I tell them this is not a Hollywood special effect, that these boosters carried a payload to space and landed so they could be used again. It’s a fun and exciting video to watch. I know I date myself when I say “that is really cool,” but they sense my excitement. And when I report that as amazing as that technology is, the great part is that people just like them designed it. That’s the message. I want to share that feeling with youth so they, too, can discover the wonder of how we can shape and enhance our lives by harnessing technology. And hopefully inspire them to dream big things.
Tell us about any Civil Air Programs (such as STEM Kits, TOP Flights, ACE, AEX) you use internally and externally.
I have made extensive use of AEX, both internally for the squadron and externally for several middle schools. It’s a great resource and the cadets/students really enjoy the hands-on activities. I’m proud to report that my squadron has achieved the AEX award every year I have been the AEO and we did it again this year. I also have used several of the AEX activities (Fizzy Flyer, SR-71, Goddard Rocket and the air launched paper rocket) for stand alone activities during school visits. They are a great way to connect the principles of aerospace and how things work to practical examples. And I have also used the STEM kits. The first was the Robotic Arm and the cadets really enjoyed it. I ordered the Cross Country Navigation just before the pandemic started. It was a challenge, but we were able to complete it virtually. For this year, we just started working on the Renewable Energy Kit. It looks great. I have always been impressed with the resources CAP makes available to the AEOs.
What is the best advice you have for a new AE Officer working with cadets?
For AEOs just starting out, I would recommend getting a mentor if that is at all possible. It does not have to be someone in your squadron. Reach out to your group AEO and they might be able to suggest or recommend someone. Mentors are great for sharing their experiences and you can learn so much from them. I had a great mentor in Lt. Col. Jacqui Sturgess. But in the end, how you operate should be based on what you know and what you are comfortable in doing. Don’t try to be your mentor. Be your own AEO, and you will be much more successful if you are true to yourself.
The other advice for being successful is preparation. Whatever exercise or activity you are planning, be sure you know it inside and out. Read all of the background information. Assemble your materials and if it is a hands-on activity, do it first yourself. This will help you understand the challenges the members might encounter and being able to offer solutions. Also remember, you are not alone. There are many avenues to get advice and assistance so reach out. And that includes me.
Do you have any suggestions for how to conduct outreach in schools (working with students and recruiting AEMs)?
Reaching out to schools is a challenge. They are very protective and don’t typically respond to cold calls and outreach. I speak from experience. You can try, but don’t expect many responses. My advice is to start with the senior members in your squadron. See who has kids in elementary, middle or high school. School administrators and teachers will respond to parents. Have them approach the school about conducting a CAP session. Be sure to have a plan for what you want to present. My external AE programs all began with a senior member opening the door.
I then presented options to the teachers and administrators in a separate meeting before we were invited in. If you do make it in, like the previous question on advice, be prepared. Students have high expectations and they want to be engaged. If you are conducting just a one-off event, make sure it is hands-on. If it’s AEX, pick a variety of activities so they can see the full range of opportunities. And most of all, have patience. Students in a school setting are not cadets and they will react very differently.
Please tell an anecdote of a rewarding experience working with cadets and/or students or teachers:
Back in August we did an in-person tour of the Intrepid with the squadron to complete our AEX activities. While waiting for the rest of our group, the father of one of the cadets pulled me aside. He wanted to thank me for engaging and inspiring his son. He told me his son mentioned me often as he recounted the AE activities he had experienced and pointed to me as a positive influence. It made me feel really great and the satisfaction of making an impact on someone’s life is priceless. That cadet is now at West Point. It’s why I do this. I have had many other rewarding experiences with cadets and students. For example, a few years ago one of the senior members asked me to conduct an AEX for his son’s Cub Scout troop. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into in working with 30+ Cub Scouts. It was exhausting but so much fun. They really embraced all of the activities and when I arrived they would always shout out “The Rocket Scientist is here.” That was a badge of honor that I wore.
Another fun time was at the Intrepid. I was working in the shuttle pavilion and about 15 elementary students and their teacher came up to me. I asked if they had any questions. Of course, like most kids they wanted to know how astronauts went to the bathroom in space. I decided to make it an educational experience. Instead of answering, I asked them a question. “What do we have on Earth that makes it easier to go to the bathroom?” They pondered the question and then I jumped up and down. It was then a number of them shouted out “Gravity.” I said yes, gravity makes it easy for us. But if you didn’t have gravity, what could you use in space? It was then one student shouted out “a vacuum cleaner.” I said, “yes, suction is how they do it.” And then I explained the space toilet in the space shuttle and the space station and how they worked. They had so many questions. When they were done, the teacher and the students thanked me and one shouted out, “Wow, you know so much. You must be an astronaut.” That was a really fun and rewarding day.
Left, Capt. Burton Dicht is leading an external air rocket launch event. Right, he is helping with his squadron's AEX activity.