Share / Discuss

Sidney Clark with plane

Fast Track

Via road, rail, sky, and space, Swarthmoreans in transportation move society forward

It’s a long way, 5 million miles. You’d have to go to the moon and back more than 10 times to cover the distance.

This is how far Sidney Clark Jr. ’75 flew in total from the first time he piloted a plane as a teenager to his retirement last year at age 65.

Throughout his 40-year tenure with American Airlines, Clark—who became the company’s first Black chief pilot—watched the aviation industry evolve. Due to technological advances, social progress, and new protocols spurred by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the end of his career looked a lot different from the beginning.

Changes in all modes of transportation have transformed the way we live. In the 1800s, waterways and railways were the primary ways to travel long distances. During the early 20th century, cars and passenger planes started taking people where they needed to go. Today, the U.S. transportation system supports 4 million miles of roadways; 150,000 miles of railroad tracks; 25,000 miles of inland waterways; nearly 20,000 airports; and more than 270 million motor vehicles—all of which foster economic growth through travel, trade, and the movement of goods. Whether working in a specific area of transportation or overseeing policy and innovation at a broader level, Swarthmore alumni have contributed to this growth in myriad ways.

Beyond simplifying people’s lives and strengthening the economy, Clark notes, the transportation industry also cultivates culture and compassion.

“We owe it to ourselves to go see and appreciate diverse terrains and the ways other people live, even in the smallest towns,” he says. “With that comes a certain level of humility and tolerance.

“It’s humbling to fly over the ocean in the middle of the night and look out at the stars and suddenly realize how small you are. Having a job in transportation gave me the gift of perspective.”

Highs and Lows

Flying a jet from Pittsburgh to Allentown, Pa., takes 18 minutes. The first time he co-piloted this flight with Allegheny Airlines (later US Airways and now American Airlines), Clark realized his captain had a problem with his skin color before the plane reached cruising altitude.

“He looked at me and said, ‘You know, I just can’t fathom Black people in the cockpit. You are only one step out of the trees,’” recalls Clark, who had been warned since he began flying lessons at 16 that Black pilots faced an uphill battle. Tense interactions like these persisted—a colleague displaying his Ku Klux Klan membership card, an aircraft mechanic refusing to address him directly—but barely fazed him.

“You have to let people know immediately that they are not going to bully, intimidate, or disrespect you,” says Clark, crediting Swarthmore—where he studied philosophy and engineering—with his ability to remain calm in almost any situation. “I loved to fly and wasn’t going to let anyone keep me from doing it.

“Swarthmore taught me that everyone has the capacity to think, but not everyone has capacity to be a critical thinker. While there, I learned how to take action without being driven by emotion.”

Clark had plenty of positive flying experiences, too, and they increased over time.

A few years after he was named chief pilot in 1994—a role that put him in charge of all the pilots in his Charlotte, N.C., base—he relocated to Pittsburgh. When news of his pending departure spread, his predominantly white subordinates protested because they wanted him to stay.

Rising safety concerns shaped the evolution of Clark’s career. After 9/11, he and his peers underwent enhanced screening processes and stopped opening their cockpit doors except when necessary. He completed federal law enforcement training that qualified him to be armed during domestic flights.

Over the years, Clark also embraced a continuous stream of new technologies as they unfolded.

“The first jet I flew, the DC-9, had a basic autopilot. You could put it in the climb mode or the level mode, and you could turn left and right. That’s about it,” he says. “By the time I retired, the Airbus A330 and the Boeing 767 could do a complete auto-land and come to a full stop without me touching a thing. Navigation had become so precise that you could program a flight all the way from a U.S. city to Paris before you even left the ground.”

Like Clark, Jonathan Leung ’09 had a seemingly innate fascination with air travel—and he can pinpoint the moment during his junior year at Swarthmore that he set his sights on a career in air traffic control.

“It was in my defense policy class, taught by Professor James Kurth,” recalls Leung, who majored in history with a minor in peace and conflict studies. “One of his assigned readings was the 9/11 Commission Report—550 pages of what I thought would be a sleeping pill but was actually the opposite. The first chapter was a minute-by-minute account of what happened in air traffic control that morning. I read it and was hooked.”

Now an air traffic controller at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, Leung coordinates flight traffic patterns to ensure that aircraft maintain safe distances apart.

“Sometimes I’m communicating with more than 30 planes at once,” he says, noting that his field requires skills that can’t be taught. “Air traffic controllers need a natural aptitude for spatial recognition because we have to think in multiple dimensions—including the dimension of time. If I see three dots on top of each other on my screen, each representing a plane, I have to visualize where each of them will be in one minute, in two minutes, and so on.”

Leung says “reducing reality” helps air traffic controllers maintain composure in stressful situations.

He compares the work to playing a video game—not because he doesn’t take his job seriously, but because detachment curbs anxiety and keeps him focused.

“If you start thinking about how many people are on each airplane and what the consequences would be if you made a mistake, you’ll get into trouble,” says Leung, recalling an incident last year when he guided an amateur pilot to safety after bad weather caused the pilot to lose all visibility. Once the plane finally landed, the shaken pilot thanked Leung for the life-saving directives.

Leung had remained calm throughout that entire shift, but that night, he barely slept. It’s the only time he just couldn’t turn off the adrenaline.

Street Smart

While air travel enables access to virtually any part of the world, within the United States it’s highways that provide the ribbon of connection between towns, cities, and states. Rémy Donahey ’14 earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering and is now a highway designer at an engineering design firm in New Jersey, working to make sure those who use them reach their destinations safely and efficiently.

“Anything within 30 to 50 feet of a roadway and from about 3 feet underground to a significant height above ground has to be reviewed by a highway designer,” she explains. “The placement of utilities, signage, pavement, sidewalks, guide rails, a roadway’s curves, turning lanes—this all takes more planning than you ever thought possible.”

Donahey has fond childhood memories of helping her father, also a transportation engineer, manually color in the road plans he would bring home from work. Today, she uses computer-aided design to streamline what she describes as “a very iterative process.”

“I can’t imagine doing highway design before computers,” she says. “Every time we go out in the field, there might be a new subdivision or a new strip mall or somebody’s changed the direction of a driveway entrance. In a matter of months, everything can change, and our original design won’t work anymore.”

Donahey estimates that about one-third of her firm’s engineers are women—a stark change from her dad’s early days in the industry, when all of his peers were men.

Progress in highway design itself can lag, she says, due to an industrywide hesitation to modify standards that have already proved safe and durable. Introducing new strategies or materials poses risks to engineers, who are held liable if their innovations fail or cause harm to motorists. Another obstacle to advances is insufficient funding.

“It always comes down to money,” she says. “Aging infrastructure is one of the main problems everyone should be talking about in this country. If we don’t spend money on infrastructure, people can’t get to work, they can’t get food, they can’t do anything. Without strong infrastructure, we can’t fix any other problems. But it’s expensive and just isn’t something people want to spend on.

“At Swarthmore,” she adds, “I was exposed to a lot of conversations about social equality and basic human necessities that helped me understand why it’s so important that we invest in a comprehensive transportation system.”

Amtrak employees Rich Slattery ’80 and Max Johnson ’96 understand Donahey’s frustrations. The colleagues agree that inadequate funding and aging infrastructure and equipment represent the company’s greatest hurdles, especially given the nation’s projected population growth.

“The intercity public transportation system the U.S. has now is not sustainable,” says Slattery, Amtrak’s senior research director. “Building more airports and highways to carry more people isn’t a viable option—or an environmentally sustainable one when you consider that an airline trip consumes 50 percent more energy, and each highway trip nearly twice as much energy, as making the same trip by Amtrak. So, the future of passenger rail transportation is very promising—if we can secure the public investment that’s needed to grow our service.”

Johnson, the senior director of state policy and governance, emphasizes that infrastructure challenges cut across all modes of transportation but believes passenger rail is uniquely positioned to provide a solution.

“As the country continues to grow, as it gets harder to build new freeways, and as younger generations continue to drive less,” he says, “we hope to continue to develop the Amtrak network, together with our state partners, to keep Americans moving.”

For the past six years, Johnson and Slattery have been sponsoring Swarthmore students through the College’s Extern Program, a one-week mentored job-shadowing experience.

“Rich introduces the externs to some of the larger issues Amtrak is facing at the corporate level, and I show them what it’s like working at a more detailed level on the individual routes,” Johnson says. “We give externs a taste of one version of the working world, and they can see what they think about it.”

Mobile Communities

Beyond viewing transportation as a means for travel, Randall “Keith” Benjamin II ’09 approaches it as a tool for building community. As director of the Department of Traffic and Transportation for Charleston, S.C.—a position he assumed in June 2017—Benjamin is among the youngest, and one of only a few Black individuals, to serve in this role for a major American city.

Officially, Benjamin oversees transportation planning, partnerships, and maintenance—from street signs and traffic signals to pavement markings and parking meters. Unofficially, he sees to it that all Charlestonians have convenient and affordable ways to access jobs, health care, healthy food, and housing.

“I want to do transportation for everybody—the elderly, the workforce, people with disabilities, those with lower incomes, tourists, and those who were born and raised here,” says Benjamin, who has been interested in community-building since his days studying political science, religion, and Black Studies at Swarthmore. As a student, he spent breaks during and between semesters exploring policy in action—supporting the Chester Housing Authority as the first Chester Community Fellow, as well as completing internships with Philadelphia Councilman Curtis Jones, an expert on community-based economic development; U.S. Sen. Carl Levin ’56, H’80 of Michigan, an advocate for urban infrastructure development; and the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

After graduating, he landed a position in the Transport Workers Union’s Office of Political and Legislative Affairs, where he observed how “transportation is a big piece of the answer to closing the gap between opportunity and access,” Benjamin says. “It dictates what our community looks like, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

With every project he implements, Benjamin keeps equity at top of mind.

He has introduced reduced bike-share rates for low-income residents; a free hop-on, hop-off shuttle for workers in the hospitality industry; an enhanced rapid bus transit system; and plans for an extensive urban bikeway system as well as a pedestrian bridge that will connect Charleston’s medical district to those on the other side of the Ashley River. He strives to use his platform to promote a cultural shift away from car-centrism and toward inclusivity.

“Forty percent of our public housing residents are dependent on public transit, yet fewer than 20 percent of our bus stops even have a shelter; most are just a pole and a sign,” says Benjamin, who plans to stay in his role for the foreseeable future. “What does this say to the people who rely on that mode of transportation? They should feel that they are just as important as people driving a private automobile.”

The Road Ahead

However they travel, people need to do so safely, says Diana Furchtgott-Roth ’79. Earlier this year, she was appointed deputy assistant secretary for research and technology at the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT)—a position in which she coordinates more than $1 billion in funding for research across all of the federal transportation programs.

On any given day, Furchtgott-Roth can rattle off dozens of USDOT-funded projects in progress. The Federal Transit Administration is examining how best to park and retrieve automated buses, which are difficult to move around in crowded lots. The Federal Railroad Administration is advancing an ultrasonic technology that can send signals into rails to locate invisible but potentially dangerous cracks. The Federal Highway Administration is designing traffic signal technology that collects data from buses—such as number of riders and schedules—to optimize signal changes in real time. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is studying how fatigue interferes with driving various kinds of vehicles. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is trying to develop a test to measure marijuana impairment in motorists—an initiative Furchtgott-Roth sees as particularly challenging.

“If you are stopped for drunken driving, you can be given a breath test,” she says. “That doesn’t work with marijuana—so how do we measure impairment when it comes to drugged driving? Marijuana impairment is difficult to detect in an accurate way, but accidents in states where the drug has been legalized are on the rise, and we need to do something about that.”

One of USDOT’s most daunting tasks involves setting up a terrestrial backup for the nation’s global positioning system. GPS satellite signals are fundamental to countless networks: the power grid, the internet, financial trading, telecommunications, and, of course, transportation.

“If all of the satellites were knocked out due to an electromagnetic storm, military action, or some other disruption, how would GPS work?” Furchtgott-Roth says. “We’re testing this technology at our Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass.”

USDOT also supports transportation-related research at universities across the nation; Furchtgott-Roth coordinates funding for those, too. Recently, she oversaw grants for one center at the University of South Florida to explore solutions to traffic congestion, and at Washington State University to study new pavement materials and other ways to fix crumbling transportation infrastructure.

“At my last reunion, Professor [Mark] Kuperberg asked me, ‘Diana, how come you haven’t fixed all the potholes yet?’” she laughs.

“Well, Washington State [University] is going to look at how we can get that done.”

Planetary Planning

When it comes to advancing transportation, some of the world’s most ambitious innovators work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)—a Pasadena, Calif.-based center where researchers conceptualize and build robotic spacecraft. Funded by NASA, JPL has designed more than 100 journeys to explore the solar system—including the Mars Science Laboratory mission, featuring the famed Curiosity rover.

A JPL technologist who describes his work as “somewhere between science and engineering,” Vernon Chaplin ’07 focuses on the burgeoning area of electric propulsion. Traditional rockets operate by burning fuel and firing hot exhaust downward, which propels them into motion. Electric propulsion is different.

“We’re using electromagnetic forces to accelerate ionized particles to make the spacecraft go. It’s much more fuel-efficient, but it’s not nearly as powerful—which is OK up in space, because you don’t need a lot of force to move there,” he explains.

Chaplin initially considered majoring in mathematics at Swarthmore but changed his mind after taking an introductory physics course.

“The department did a good job designing a class that would hook new majors. It focused on special relativity and quantum mechanics—really cool areas that were removed from an ordinary human experience and got me excited about going the physics route,” he says.

The College’s astrophysics track allowed him to incorporate his lifelong interest in astronomy; after graduating, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in plasma physics from the California Institute of Technology, which manages everyday operations at JPL.

At the moment, Chaplin is concentrating on two programs JPL hopes to launch within the next several years. The first is a journey to a peculiar asteroid, Psyche, which orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter and appears to be made completely of metal, as though it’s the core of a planet that never fully formed. Reaching this asteroid could improve understanding of what lies inside other planets.

The second mission involves building a new space station that will orbit the moon and serve as a “deep space gateway”—a landing post where astronauts can stop before continuing on to other destinations, like Mars.

Does Chaplin think humans will really walk on “the red planet”?

“Definitely,” he says. “Without a doubt.”

Common Ground

Safe and efficient transportation systems help societies thrive, grow, and connect. Swarthmore alumni in the industry are using their diverse expertise to support the nation’s social and economic well-being. Clark helped break down barriers in the field of aviation, and Leung keeps pilots and their passengers out of harm’s way. Donahey, Johnson, and Slattery streamline transportation on the ground. Benjamin and Furchtgott-Roth influence policy and progress on the city, state, and federal levels. And Chaplin is working to transform movement in space. Their professions and skill sets vary widely, but they share a common goal: keeping people in motion.

“Transportation is something everybody uses every day,” Furchtgott-Roth says. “Every 10 minutes on the radio, what do you hear? A traffic report. If you look at front pages of the newspapers, there is always something transportation-related. It’s on everyone’s mind.”

The modern world is essentially built around the ability to travel, and most people could not imagine living without access to cars, trucks, buses, trains, and planes.

“People never think about what goes into transportation systems,” Donahey says. “They just get in their car or another vehicle and go. Those of us working in transportation and transportation infrastructure make it so that people can get where they need to be without ever considering all the hours we put into making that possible. In reality, every single human being is greatly affected by our work.”

Adaptive Cycling Powers—and Empowers

Yes, it’s fun, sustainable, and great exercise, but cycling is also an important form of transportation—one that represents freedom for many people with disabilities.

Inclusive-cycling advocates like Peter Coffin ’71 help individuals with physical limitations attain that freedom. Since retiring seven years ago as an obstetrician/gynecologist, the longtime bike enthusiast has been volunteering with the Bay Area Outreach & Recreation Program in Berkeley, Calif. Working with the organization’s Adaptive Cycling Center, Coffin helps clients choose from a collection of hand cycles, three-wheelers, recumbent cycles, tandems, and other specialized cycles. He then customizes the equipment to meet their needs and guides customers through using it.

“We have stroke survivors, people with cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis or scoliosis, people who are blind or quadriplegic, you name it,” he says. “Our clients are so resilient—I am in awe of how they deal with their everyday challenges and still come out to learn a new skill.”

Coffin and fellow mechanics get creative when modifying cycles for specific situations. For example, he explains, if they link a hand-powered bike and a traditional bike together, a person with paralyzed legs can sit on the front bike and steer, while a visually impaired person can sit on the rear bike and pedal. If they attach a long lever to the shifter on a three-wheeled bike, a person who has no arms can change gears using their knees while pedaling and steering with their feet.

“It’s gratifying to open up a window that someone thought was closed for them forever,” Coffin says. “Many of these people have lived their lives being told they cannot do very much. Cycling brings them a sense of pride and independence, the feeling of not being dependent on anybody to push them around in a chair.”