As a child, Jim Sokol (‘83, DB) loved watching planes take off from the Atlanta airport and even learned to fly himself, but being a pilot didn’t align with his natural talents.
“I was not great at flying,” says the president of Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) Services at HAECO Americas. “I enjoyed it, but I really felt more comfortable with operations and mechanical things.”
Sokol went on to earn certificates in aircraft maintenance technology and airframe and powerplant from Embry-Riddle, and now has more than 33 years of experience in the aircraft maintenance industry. Grateful for the strong foundation he gained at Embry-Riddle and his resulting career success, he wants to return the favor by initiating scholarships, internships and other opportunities for students at his alma mater.
“The great thing about Embry-Riddle is it opened so many doors of opportunity,” says Sokol. “Embry-Riddle is recognized as the No. 1 leader in the industry, and I’m proud of that.”
Supporting the Next Generation
This fall, HAECO Americas representatives, including Sokol, pledged $50,000 to establish an endowed scholarship benefiting aerospace engineering and aviation maintenance science students at Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach Campus. In 2011, when Sokol was Southwest Airlines’ vice president of maintenance operations, he helped establish a $50,000 endowed scholarship from Southwest for undergraduate engineering students.
“Jim is an outstanding example of an alumnus who truly cares for the next generation of Embry-Riddle students and goes above and beyond to support them,” says Christopher J. Lambert, senior executive director of development at Embry-Riddle. “We are grateful for his commitment and support.”
According to Sokol, there is a huge need to develop talented young people in the growing field of aviation, and he wants those opportunities to be available to students, especially at the university that helped him get his start. “Embry-Riddle provides the best training there is,” he says. “If you’re going to go into aviation, it is the school to go to.”
A Rising Career Path
When Sokol graduated, he landed his first job at Emerald Airlines, a freight airline out of Austin, Texas, that was owned by Lady Bird Johnson. Then, Braniff International Airlines hired him as a mechanic, just as the company was reorganizing. “I was part of the folks behind the scenes working to get the fleet ready as a new mechanic,” he says. “I had a lot of opportunities to be mentored and see a lot of unique things.”
Two years later, Sokol became the youngest inspector to be promoted at Braniff. “I was 24 years old and looking at quality of maintenance,” he says. His area spun off into an MRO station, and in 1994, he took a job at Southwest Airlines as a quality control support manager. “They were just starting to grow as a small regional airline into a commercial airline that went beyond Texas,” Sokol recalls.
“The students coming through Embry-Riddle are the future of our industry”
Getting in at the ground floor at Southwest allowed Sokol to experience a variety of work responsibilities and take leadership roles. He was promoted to the director level for quality control and assurance at the airline. About a year later, Sokol, then 37, was asked to interview for the job of vice president of maintenance with the company’s founders.
“Southwest had about 100 planes at that time,” he says. “I was very, very intimidated. The interview was four hours long, and they asked me all kinds of questions.” Sokol landed the job, and in 1999, he was promoted to vice president of maintenance and engineering for Southwest, which grew its fleet to more than 600 planes.
About a year ago, he was offered his current job at HAECO Americas, which is headquartered in Greensboro, N.C. HAECO Americas, a wholly owned subsidiary of the HAECO Group based in Hong Kong, provides aircraft MRO services and manufactured products to commercial, government and private aerospace customers. It is known for being one of the largest global providers of MRO services, interiors products and engineering services.
Spreading the Word
As he did at Southwest, Sokol is working at HAECO to create greater awareness of Embry-Riddle and its students, while building ties between the company and the university.
A strong relationship benefits HAECO also, since scholarships and internships for top Embry-Riddle students provide an important talent pipeline, says Leonard Kazmerski, vice president of marketing and business development for HAECO Americas. “There is going to be a growing demand as we look ahead,” Kazmerski adds. “Efforts from folks like Jim to try to create opportunities and interest are going to become very important.”
Sokol is also coordinating with Embry-Riddle to encourage high school students in Lake County, Fla., and community college students in Greensboro to further their education at Embry-Riddle, especially in aviation maintenance science.
Sokol’s son, Preston, 21, is also in the business. An aircraft technician for the U.S. Navy, he works on F-18 aircraft and hopes to eventually continue his education at Embry-Riddle’s Worldwide Campus.
“It’s just connecting the dots with continuing education,” Sokol says. “The students coming through Embry-Riddle are the future of our industry.”