Magazine Feature / People

PhD degree makes student Doctor Copter

helicopter hovering over Pentgon on 9-11

Brett Machovina pilots a helicopter over the Pentagon in 9-11. Machovina graduates from DU on June 4.

Some students “start from a higher place.” Some enter the military planning to “aim high.”

Brett Machovina did both.

The Air Force lieutenant colonel will graduate with his PhD in geography from the University of Denver on June 4. He’s an active member of the military while earning his advanced degree, thanks to an Air Force program that helps members advance their education while on duty.

Machovina has been a grateful participant in the Air Force program, earning a bachelor’s degree in geography at the Air Force Academy before pursuing his master’s degree in geography at Ohio State University. After flight training and eight years flying helicopters in support of missile emplacements, Machovina returned to the academy, where he taught undergraduate students.

“The Air Force offered me all kinds of opportunities along the way, and when the opportunity came up to earn a PhD, I jumped at it immediately,” Machovina says.

Living south of Castle Rock, Colo., Machovina found himself commuting as many as five days a week by bus and lightrail to DU for classes, research and meetings over the past three years. As he worked on his dissertation, the travel schedule eased, but his workload didn’t. Even with six children at home, he developed a new navigational system for helicopter pilots. He says the system is a bit like a car’s Garmin navigation system. It thinks in three dimensions, accounts for the fastest route from point A to point B and factors for available cover, enemy activity and pilot safety.

Military chopper pilots enter their destination, and the computer helps plot a course that takes advantage of the terrain, keeping the pilot, when possible, low into valleys and clear of enemies.

“It’s a lot of three-dimensional modeling,” he says. “I took a lot of the knowledge I had from my own experience, and I took a lot of what I learned in here … This takes in a lot of information and really puts it all together for the pilot.”

Traditionally, pilots pored over paper charts and topography maps then integrated available intelligence reports. With Machovina’s programs, the computer would do all of that, faster and more accurately.

“It’s about stealth, not being seen, not being heard, hiding behind clouds, trees, bushes,” he says. “The computer can do that a heck of a lot better than a human being, it’s so quick.”

Leaving behind the military environment for DU’s academic setting wasn’t as hard as some might think, Machovina says.

“It’s good to get that diversity of experiences,” he says. “It’s nice to get out of that military environment. It gives you a different experience. Any time you can get those experiences that are ‘out of the box,’ it helps.”

But will people start calling him “doctor” with that new PhD? Not exactly. Back in the Air Force, Machovina is still “Colonel.” Or, as his daughter calls him, “Colonel Copter.”

Graduation will open a new chapter in Machovina’s career. He and his family are off to Minot, N.D., where he’ll take on operations duties for a squadron of helicopters based at Minot Air Force Base. After a three-year stint there, Machovina says he hopes to return to his adopted state, Colorado, to teach full time at the Air Force Academy.

“I really owe so much to the Air Force,” Machovina says. “It’s a great opportunity for people who want to serve the country and don’t have the resources financially to attend school. I’m very thankful for it. I don’t think I deserved any of this, but I’m grateful.”  

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