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Propelled toward success

Kelton Phillips

For Kelton Phillips, becoming an engineer of any sort was far from a longterm goal. And NC State? Well, the university initially felt a bit too close to home when a teenage Phillips thought about the future.

“I was a little reluctant to come here, honestly,” he recently said with a laugh. “I’m really glad that it worked out to be NC State for me though.”

A lot of things have worked out over the past four years. The brand-new alumnus couldn’t be happier or more grateful.

Phillips graduated from the College of Engineering on May 4 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He will head to a fulltime job at Piedmont Propulsion in Winston-Salem, where he has worked as an intern.

He is engaged to an NC State alumna. They met as part of a collection of students — who largely continue as friends — that regularly played spikeball in front of Sullivan Residence Hall when he was a freshman and she was a sophomore.

Phillips never met an engineer growing up, as far as he knew, and never gave much thought to engineering as a concept before he took an Advanced Placement physics class at Panther Creek High School.

He had always liked math, but that physics course’s emphasis on cause and effect and problem solving truly intrigued and engaged him. His calculus and physics teachers, both experienced engineers, began encouraging him to learn more about that field.

Turns out, Phillips might have been laying the groundwork for years.

He holds many fond memories of working on car repairs alongside his father. Side by side in the driveway of their home in Apex, North Carolina, they would build their skills as mechanics to keep the family’s vehicles on the road as long as possible. More on that in a moment.

“At some point I started thinking about how someone designed all these systems, all these parts we were using or refiguring,” he said.


Kelton (fourth from left) with his siblings. (Photo by Kelton Phillips)
Kelton (fourth from left) with his siblings. Photo courtesy of Kelton Phillips.

During his time in the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering at NC State, Phillips explored several products of those disciplines through classes and internships, from race cars to biomedical prosthetics to HVAC systems. Airplanes most piqued his interest.

What the Phillips father-son duo did for cars, Piedmont Propulsion does for airplanes. The company is an MRO shop — MRO standing for maintenance, repair and overhaul.

In the most basic terms, Piedmont Propulsion produces parts for propeller planes. The company develops repair processes and reverse-engineers parts no longer being manufactured regularly by the original big builders of airplanes.

As commercial, cargo and military airplanes age, this work becomes vital.

For example, the company might receive a hydraulic cylinder that is worn beyond repair. Instead of waiting over a year to provide the customer with a costly replacement part, its engineers create and document a custom repair to make the worn cylinder usable again.

The work involves a lot of technology, efficiencies and considerations like FAA regulations.

“We keep them in the air,” Phillips said. “I don’t usually get to see the planes, yet, but it’s cool to see a blade that’s going on a C-130 or Blackhawk helicopter. We have a sister company in Florida that focuses on helicopters, and I’ve been able to assist on a number of projects there as well.

“It’s really neat to think that on a passenger plane or a military plane, a part that I helped make, or a repair process I worked on, helps keep it in the air. There’s a lot of engineering behind those small parts.”

Phillips can truly call himself an engineer, applying what he has learned to solving problems.

“Every day is different,” he said. “I feel like what I’m doing means something tangible.”

Another factor in his college career also shaped him a great deal. Remember those car repairs? A measured work ethic and thriftiness were threads running through Phillips’ childhood.

As the fifth of eight siblings who currently range in age from 12 to 28, he knew that — although his parents are tremendously supportive of their children’s educations — he largely would be responsible for funding college himself.

Phillips held a variety of jobs in high school and college, and he spent his sophomore and junior years at NC State working as a resident advisor for Wood Hall.

“Living with a bunch of people and helping each other out — that was pretty much something I was used to,” he said. “It never really felt like a job.”

COVID-19, of course, turned his freshman experience upside down. He remembers that year for a combination of taking online classes and exploring a virtually deserted and silent NC State campus by riding Lime scooters with a few other students who also lived nearby.

A Dean’s List regular, Phillips scraped by financially until receiving two merit-based scholarships as a junior: the John Estes Conway Scholarship and the Doug and Whitney Yates Scholarship.

He was deeply grateful for the financial support, which, among other things, freed up a few hours away from work for him to do things like serve as the volunteer coach of his younger brother’s recreational soccer team, an unforgettable and rewarding experience.

A decommissioned propellor blade from a Fokker 50 airplane that Phillips received as a souvenir. Phllips made one part for this type of blade and made one repair. The blade was originally black and yellow, but Phillips painted it red and white. (Photo by Kelton Phillips)
A decommissioned propellor blade from a Fokker 50 airplane that Phillips received as a souvenir. He made one part for this type of blade and made one repair. The blade was originally black and yellow, but Phillips painted it red and white. Photo courtesy of Kelton Phillips.

Phillips was a little surprised to find himself just as affected by the nonfinancial aspect of getting scholarships. The application process, supported by his advisor Cheryl Tran, was a chance to reflect on many things; he was inspired to learn about the scholarships’ namesake alumni donors and to become more engaged and invested with his department.

“Getting scholarships, both going through the process of applying, writing essays and all of that, and feeling the recognition, meant so much to me,” he said. “It was like my department recognized that I was doing well. It’s also cool to see these people who went to NC State that are doing so well and to see how they’re giving back.

“I had never really thought about the impact I could make until then. I hope that after I go out and work a bit, I can come back to NC State and do something to support future students, whether that’s making donations to a scholarship or doing something like mentoring or speaking.”

Soon he will head to Winston-Salem, where his fiancé, who graduated in biology from NC State, is pursuing nursing. He will be driving a 2002 Chevrolet Blazer with 300,000 miles on it that he still works on himself.

“High school seems like yesterday or 20 years ago, I can’t decide which,” he said. “As a freshman coming in, I definitely never thought I’d be in this spot. I finished a degree in engineering, graduated with a 4.0, I’ve got a meaningful job and a soon to-be-wife . . . I took a lot of turns to get to where I am now, but I found something I truly enjoy.”

This post was originally published in Giving News.