Helicopter Pilot and Iraq Veteran Fulfills Dream of Becoming an Engineer

May 13, 2009Bookmark and Share
Jonathan Belmont
Jonathan Belmont

By the time he was 11, Jonathan Belmont knew three things: he wanted to be a pilot; he wanted to serve in the military; and he wanted to be an engineer. When he graduates with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science on May 18, he will have accomplished all three goals.

“I saw a picture of an Apache helicopter in fifth grade and said, ‘Okay, that’s what I want to do when I grow up,’” says Belmont, 32, referring to the U.S. Army’s main attack helicopter. “The rest of it just fell into place as I learned more about what pilots do and how they’re trained.”
  
Belmont graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1999 and has served two year-long tours in Iraq. In February 2003, he was among the first wave of troops to cross the border, serving as a platoon leader and liaison officer. As a platoon leader, he was in charge of 15 pilots and 15 enlisted soldiers with four helicopters among them; as a liaison officer, his main job was to remain on the ground and tell the helicopter pilots where the ground commander needed their support. He fought in several key battles, including the battle of the Karbala Gap, in which the U.S. cleared a main approach to Baghdad.
 
When Belmont returned to Iraq in July 2006 he faced a more challenging situation. The invasion, he said, “was pretty one-sided, if you look at it from a pure force-on-force standpoint.” By 2006, however, Baghdad was engulfed in civil war. In early 2007 the U.S. responded with its surge strategy, and Belmont and his troops faced more sustained periods of fighting.
 
“The difference between the two tours was like night and day,” he says. Stationed in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Belmont served as a maintenance company commander for an Apache battalion in the 82nd Airborne Division. He commanded 150 soldiers and test pilots and oversaw maintenance for Apaches. “Every day was a high adventure,” he says, as the surge in Baghdad pushed criminals and terrorists into the region where he was stationed. Eventually, Belmont’s team launched a successful surge of their own.
 
Belmont, who was recently promoted to major in the U.S. Army, chose Columbia for its outstanding mechanical engineering program. Since the Army’s allowance wouldn’t cover his full tuition, graduate committee chair Jeffrey Kysar and mechanical engineering department chair Larry Yao worked with the school to cover the remaining cost in exchange for Belmont taking on teaching and other responsibilities within the department. One of these was working as a teaching assistant in the undergraduate engineering lab, where students work on experiments and learn to manufacture tools and machinery.
 
“It’s hard to believe that schools are out there today actually trying to produce mechanical engineers that have never spent any time on a lathe or a mill or gotten their hands dirty building something, because they’ve done it all on a computer,” he says.
 
After graduation, Belmont will take an Army assignment working in West Point’s admissions office, a position that requires an advanced degree. But he hopes the Army, which will be in charge of his career path for at least the next ten years, will eventually let him put his engineering skills to more direct use.  Ideally, he would like to work in its acquisition corps, which writes requests for new equipment. Belmont experienced the value of new technology firsthand during his second tour of Iraq, when his unit became the first to field test a new, high-tech sensor that helped pilots see missile targets at night. “It made a huge difference in our operations,” he says.
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