Director of Aviation Technology
Hometown: Syracuse, New York
Fun Fact: Served in the Air Force alongside UAA Chancellor Tom Case in Germany and in Alaska
“Don’t waste your time while you’re in high school.” That is Rocky Capozzi’s biggest piece of advice to students who want to achieve success in college. Hone your mathematics, science and English skills while the courses are still free, he says. And it’s a sound recommendation, especially coming from someone who entered the Air Force at age 17 and went on to serve his country for 29 years.
Rocky took his own advice back in 1970. He was a junior in high school when a guidance counselor approached him asking if he’d ever considered joining the Air Force. The young Capozzi had dreamed about becoming a pilot someday but it had seemed out of reach. Stepping up to the challenge, though, he earned an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy and by 1974 had his B.S. in Engineering Mechanics. By 1975, he had finished his M.S. in Engineering Mechanics from Columbia University as a Guggenheim Fellow. And thus began his Air Force career as a fighter pilot stationed at 14 different locations in the United States as well as two different assignments in Germany and one in Korea.
Alaska and Hawaii were his last two duty stations in the late 1990s, early ’00s. Alaska in 1996–98, then Hawaii for two years and back to Alaska in 2000. He officially retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 2003.
In 2006, Rocky was sitting at his desk at the FAA’s runway safety office when opportunity came knocking from UAA. The Community & Technical College needed an interim director for their aviation program and thought Rocky would be a great fit.
“It was a little out of the blue, but I liked the idea,” Rocky says. “I had just spent a whole career in aviation and I thought it would be great to be around young people just getting started.”
He ended up liking the gig so much that during the national search for the permanent position, Rocky put his name into the hat. It’s six years later and he still loves coming to work every day.
“I am always happy to see our students graduate and get jobs in the industry and move on to successful careers,” he says. Reminiscing about a marketing video he made a few years ago, he says, “Everybody in [that video] was either a student, faculty member, graduate or someone who hires our graduates; and every student that was in that video is now out working in the aviation industry. I enjoy it every time I watch it.”
In addition to student success, Rocky is also committed to community partnerships between the aviation program and the industry, from convening an advisory council to acting as host for aviation events, programs and summer camps. His department also had a general aviation research component in the past.
“We played a significant part in the development of automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADSB) technology as part of a safety initiative to decrease the accident rate for aircraft here in Alaska,” he explains, describing the satellite system that is slowly taking over ground-based radar as the industry’s primary mechanism of air traffic control. “The FAA has adopted that technology as the backbone of what’s call the Next Generation Air Transportation System (or NextGen), and there are a lot of foreign visitors who the FAA has brought to UAA because of that research.”
Rocky notes that the 2008 recession put a little bit of a damper on some of his program growth goals over the last few years, but it’s hard to tell looking in from the outside, what with a record number of graduates (140) in 2011–2012 (up from a previous high of just over 120). Since Alaska is a state highly dependent on aviation, it’s no surprise UAA’s graduates are still in high demand—from pilots to aviation mechanics to air traffic control personnel.
Rocky hasn’t stopped flying either. He tries to get out in his Cessna 172 at least a few times a month, in between golf games and salmon runs. And he and his wife of 38 years, Joanne, have three adult children, each of them with Air Force ties: son Michael is an Air Force major and pilot, son Nicholas just separated from the Army but is married to an Air Force officer, and daughter Kati (a former UAA marketing student) is also married to an Air Force officer. Military honor is a family affair.
Sitting in the flight simulator with Rocky, as he calmly relays instructions for a safe landing, it’s easy to see how his leadership style from years of military service has led to a passion for running a quality program at UAA. His heart is in it. And he looks out ahead at what is coming down the runway. A broad vision coupled with an eye always on his gauges (in Rocky’s case, his students). That is his recipe for success.