photo of Jonathan Morrell

Current Job

Flight Data Engineer

Current Employer

GE Aviation

Current Location

Austin, TX

Why did you decide to pursue an aerospace engineering degree?

Since I was little, I've always had a passion for flight. I wanted to learn what drove the design decisions behind airplanes and use that to innovate the next generation of aircraft.

Describe your current position.

As a flight data engineer, I handle the decoding and onboarding of recorded flight data from commercial aircraft. Flight Data Recorders (FDRs) and Quick Access Recorders (QARs) record parametric data streaming in from the aircraft's nervous system of sensors and code that data into binary. My job is to build decoder rings that know where to look for a string of bits in a given data file and turn that into actual engineering values.

What do you like most about your job? What do you find most challenging?

I think the answers to those two questions are one in the same. Though commercial aviation data is standardized in some respects by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there is still a lot of freedom given to the operator to choose what parameter data they want to monitor. This makes the data coming from each aircraft unique, and I enjoy the challenge of trying to manipulate and convert that data into something usable for analysis. I also find it really exciting that I'm often the first to ever look at the data from brand new planes.

What are your career goals?

The flight data industry has shown tremendous growth, even in the 2+ years I've been with GE. Flight analytics are becoming more popular as airlines look for new ways to optimize their fleets and cut fuel costs, so I want to stay here for a while. Eventually, I might transition to something on the customer engagement side. One of my favorite aspects of the job is working with airline pilots and analysts and learning their perspective.

Were you involved in student projects/organizations with ASE/EM?

Though I wasn't active in any ASE clubs or organizations while an undergrad, the group class projects I worked on provided an environment remarkably similar to that of a smaller company. Although the group I work for belongs to GE Aviation, we only have about 15 people on our engineering team. This makes for a work dynamic where delegation and interdependence is key. Just like the class projects I worked on, with limited resources, we had no choice but to rely on each team member to be responsible for one piece of the assignment in it's entirety. When you come to the realization that your whole team is counting on you to deliver, it instills a strong motivation to succeed.

Were you involved in any fellowships or internships? 

I completed two co-op terms while in school. The company I worked for during those internships was a large defense contractor and I didn't get much personal attention from my supervisor while I was there. I learned a couple of key things that shaped my career path.

1. I learned how to exercise all resources available to complete a task. Often times I would teach myself a skill through independent research or through the guidance of a mentor/co-worker.

2. I decided I didn't like the feel of a big company. There were lots of hierarchical problems that stunted the progress of new design, and top-down communication seemed much more prominent than bottom-up.

Do you recommend any particular focus for students other than academics to improve themselves as potential candidates for jobs?

Hold onto your thirst for knowledge. Most of the specific coursework you complete will leave your memory after a few years if you don't use it everyday, but the soft skills will stay. You can become adept in any field if you maintain a willingness to learn through curiosity and nerdiness. Your honest desire to better understand how something works will reward you in the end.

Are there courses at UT you wish you had taken? If so, which ones and why?

Looking back, I probably could have taken a few CS classes to supplement the database manipulation work I do. Now I use SQL and Powershell, both of which I learned on the job. I also would've taken that Hip-Hop class in the communications school. I tried to register for it every semester but it was either full or didn't work with my schedule. Hip-hop is a passion of mine.

Why did you choose one track over the other (atmospheric/space)? Do you feel this has made any difference in you career?

I picked atmospheric because it's the better of the two, obviously. Just kidding. I knew that I wanted this degree to pursue a career in aviation before I even started classes, so I don't think it made much of a difference. A couple of my co-workers graduated from the space track so I'd be curious to see what they had to say.

Who was your most influential ASE or EM professor and why?

Dr. Chaput. He's one of those educators that you'll never forget for the rest of your life. Dr. Chaput prepared me more for my engineering career in two semesters than the rest of my undergrad tenure. Having the experience of managing large scale engineering projects in the defense industry, he formulated a class unlike any other to teach us not only the global design process and standards, but what it is like to work against deadlines and changing demands of customers. All those nights spent smashing my head against my monitor hoping for my spreadsheet to work taught me valuable lessons about being meticulous in problem solving.

What has been your most influential ASE or EM course and why?

Aircraft Design II was the most influential from a career perspective, but I want to give some credit to Dr. Goldstein and Applied Aerodynamics. That was the class that reinvigorated my enthusiasm for aerospace engineering. After two or three years of weed-out calculus and physics classes, my spirit was starting to feel weak and I would question whether or not I was pursuing the right degree. Applied Aero was a class I looked forward to because you could tell Dr. Goldstein enjoyed teaching it. I was solving for the vortex strength on real (well, lots of assumptions were made) cropped delta wings of real airplanes!

What is one piece of advice you have for current students?

Focus on what you love, but keep an open mind. I will openly say that I didn't actively seek this job in my final semester of school - it came to me. In my work with recruiting on campus and at the EXPO, something I hear often is "I want to design airplanes" or "I want to design jet engines." These are great aspirations, and I admit that I also once had them. What you will discover is that there are many more was to apply your degree than imaginable. Don't put your blinders on and deny yourself an opportunity just because it's not what you envisioned for yourself. Try out lots of things - to learn more about the science, and to learn more about yourself.

Do you have a favorite memory as a UT aerospace student?

Co-hosting a radio show on Friday nights with my friends on KVRX. It was two hours of sharing music, interviewing artists, having thoughtful and often irrelevant discussion, and acting stupid, all for the public ear. I miss it most because there will never be another context in life where something like that will happen for me.

List three things that most people don't know about you.

1. I'm a terrible basketball player, looks can be deceiving (I'm 6' 5").
2. I'm a pretty good artist - mostly pencil sketches of people.
3. My dad listens to the Geto Boys.