Recent engineering grad Daniela Makowski has found
her place in aerospace
By Kimberly Felton
Daniela (Sifuentes) Makowski’s favorite task at work is clambering atop the Boeing 234 Chinook – a helicopter that stretches 98 feet from nose to tail, the size of a blue whale.
We’re not talking into the Chinook, but on top of it. Today was a good day; she had to go up twice.
“I was looking at the tunnel cover over the shaft that transmits the power from the transmission box to the forward rotor head. I had to see how it works,” Makowski says with a shrug and a smile, holding up a technical drawing of the Chinook and pointing to a part that is, sure enough, smack in the middle of the top of the fuselage.
Makowski, 22, is a newly minted graduate of George Fox University’s engineering program. When she arrives at her job at Columbia Helicopters every morning, she parks in the back so she can enter through the hangar and greet these flying machines, rather than come through the front door and navigate the boring office space on the way to her cubicle. Any excuse is a good excuse for Makowski to crawl on something that defies gravity.
If you mess up, people die
Slender and petite, Makowski may look like a high school sophomore, but she talks the talk of an aeronautical engineer – and her job is to take the Boeing helicopter model 107-II (the civilian version of the Sea Knight CH-46) and the Boeing model 234 (the civilian version of the Chinook CH-47) and make them better, lighter, more efficient, stronger. These choppers move massive amounts of equipment, fight fires, work in logging operations and facilitate petroleum exploration around the world. Makowski toys with parts that keep the machines in the air and the people in them alive.
“I was probably around 8 when I decided I wanted to be in aerospace. Anything that has to do with flying things, moving things – it’s just really cool.”
Less than a year removed from her graduation in the spring of 2012, Makowski is tasked with designing improvements, repair solutions and type-design changes that maximize the helicopters’ efficiencies and capabilities. Currently, she is updating the Federal Aviation Administration certification for the GE engines on the 107-II and designing a different structural configuration for an overhaul on another helicopter.
Does her job make her even the least bit nervous? Another shrug and smile. “When you work here, you have to take a class that basically says if you mess up, people die,” she says. “But it’s not that different from Xerox. If I mess up on a part for a copy machine, it can catch on fire and then the building may burn, killing people.”
She had that choice, between Xerox and Columbia Helicopters. But her story begins in another country, half a lifetime ago.
“It’s a miracle that I’m here,” she says, with a college degree, with a job. Her parents could not help pay her college bills – but they got her to America.
From Peru to George Fox University
Twelve years ago, Makowski endured a year without her father, when he left his family in Peru and moved to America. Once he found a home and a job, he brought his wife, daughter and son to join him, living in a studio apartment 10 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. He worked first in marketing, and now as a certified nurse assistant. Makowski’s mother, a kindergarten teacher in Peru, is a housekeeper in an assisted living home.
Though Makowski’s parents were able to move the family to Oregon, escaping the gang mentality surrounding their Los Angeles neighborhood, they had no spare change to build a college fund.
“People take things for granted here, like having money and a stable job,” Makowski says. “[Getting a job] was tough for my parents when they first got here. Before I was a permanent resident [with a green card], I couldn’t work. That was tough.”
But Makowski admits that being an ethnic minority may have played in her favor, too. “I have mixed feelings about it,” she says. “I’m glad I got my scholarships, but I’d like to think I didn’t get them because I’m Hispanic, but because I worked hard for them.”
Every week of her senior year of high school, Makowski applied for a different scholarship. She worked for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which awarded her a scholarship. An internship at Xerox the summer following her junior year at George Fox led to a part-time job that she carried through her senior year. Thanks to jobs and scholarships, she graduated with zero debt.
Copy machines or aerospace?
Xerox offered Makowski a full-time position, and she planned to stay – until massive layoffs threatened her sense of long-term financial wellbeing.
In the meantime, Makowski attended a career fair as part of a class at George Fox. Columbia Helicopters was there. “They called me to see if I wanted an interview, but my [future] supervisor was flight testing,” she recalls. “I had to call and bug them for three months before I got the interview.”
She also applied to Tektronix, Hyster and ESCO. Each company offered her a job, but she narrowed her decision to Xerox and Columbia Helicopters. Both offered her the same salary. “I had to decide where I wanted to spend the next five years,” Makowski says.
Her tour of Columbia Helicopters reawakened a childhood fascination with flying objects.
“I was probably around 8 when I decided I wanted to be in aerospace,” she says. “Anything that has to do with flying things, moving things – it’s just really cool. As I got older, I realized that engineering would be the stepping stone into aeronautics and aerospace. Plus I like really big things that I can visualize. I couldn’t be in electrical engineering because everything’s so tiny.”
“I knew this is where God wanted me to be. I felt God saying, ‘I have something special for you here.’”
Intent upon a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Makowski considered Ivy League schools. Yet when her long-distance track coach at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Ore., “had all these good things to say about Fox,” Makowski decided to visit. She was hooked.
“I knew this is where God wanted me to be,” she says. “I felt God saying, ‘I have something special for you here.’ Christ is incorporated into every class; in engineering, we were required to read a chapter of Celebration of Discipline.”
“The professors are so good at what they do. They teach you how to find a solution – how to manage projects and do it well.” Makowski now puts that skill into practice as she talks with mechanics to understand what they need her design changes to achieve and as she crawls over and under helicopters to understand how her changes will affect the bigger picture. All the while, she’s mindful that lives are at stake.
“I don’t think I’ll stop learning for a while,” she says; not only on the job, but also as she studies evenings and weekends for her Master of Science in Product Development at the University of Southern California, with a focus on aerospace. She expects to finish her degree in fewer than three years.
“I love my job,” Makowski says. “For an entrylevel engineer, this is as good as it gets. I manage people and do engineering – not to mention I get to see and work on helicopters every day. At this point in life, this is my dream job. I prayed I would get an offer from Columbia, and so I did. This is the job I wanted.”