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Guardian of the skies

Dr. Tracy Dillinger, the aeronautic safety expert who helped investigate the Columbia Space Shuttle crash, never imagined how life would turn out when she applied to The Chicago School of Professional Psychology in 1986.

There are always those moments, those flickers of stardust—people and places and events that determine who we are and what we will become. But when alumna Tracy G. Dillinger, Psy.D., sifts through the memories of what shaped her studies at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology in the late 1980s and led to a career as a prominent NASA investigator, it comes back to one singular tragedy.

She was finishing up an M.A. in Counseling Psychology at the University of Iowa with her eyes on The Chicago School’s Clinical Psychology program. The daughter of psychologists, Dr. Dillinger knew if she wanted to get a Psy.D., she’d want to be taught by practicing clinicians with real-world experience.

Her plan was set. And then, on her birthday, a week before her master’s comprehensive exam, she turned on the local news.

There had been a plane crash in Iowa and the pilot was someone very close to Dr. Dillinger—a long-time friend and mentor who she knew was suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his time serving in Vietnam.

“He committed suicide by flying his airplane into the ground,” she says. “He didn’t take any passengers with him, but he could have. I think that moment is what led to me wanting to use the skills I was developing to try to prevent things like this from happening.”

So in 1986, Dr. Dillinger moved to Chicago and started at TCSPP with a special focus on military psychology. She was there just after the campus moved from Michigan Avenue to the historic Dearborn Station. Everything was new and while The Chicago School only offered the Clinical Psy.D. program at that time, she knew this institution was pioneering a new way of teaching psychology.

“I came right after they moved from the Fine Arts Building where I heard from students they could hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra practicing. It was a very optimistic time,” says Dr. Dillinger, who was a keynote speaker at a recent event at The Chicago School’s D.C. Campus. “All of the students were extremely motivated. People were really interested in helping each other and it was a lot of fun.”

Through her studies and connections, Dr. Dillinger began a psychology internship with the U.S. Air Force. Her pilot friend’s suicide fresh in her mind, this is exactly where she wanted to be.

“I knew I wanted to work with pilots to make sure they were getting good mental health services. I was also interested in that and how you maintain really high levels of performance during stressful times,” explains Dr. Dillinger, adding: “The Chicago School laid a great foundation professionally. I had a solid academic and experiential background so by the time I went to that internship, I was ready. I was as prepared as you can possibly be to enter a clinical setting.”

The internship went so well she decided to stay on as an officer in the Air Force, set on cultivating an expertise in conducting the “human factor” part of military investigations. If a plane went down, she’d examine any potential stress, fatigue, or mental health conditions affecting the people both on board and in flight control on ground.

That expertise launched a new path forward starting in 1993 with USAF aircraft mishap investigations. Six years later, she received an invitation in 1999 to serve on the prestigious Space Shuttle Independent Assessment Team (SSIAT) for NASA’s planned launch of the Columbia Space Shuttle.

To this day she remembers the moment where she had to stand up to high-ranking NASA officials to say that the Shuttle was not ready for liftoff. Too many engineers had voiced concern to the SSIAT team and she didn’t feel comfortable giving the green light.

“I was very vocal that this group of people who worked on this complicated piece of machinery were not ready,” she says. “I insisted they delay the launch and had information from people we interviewed to back me up. If you talk to engineers and they are so actively worrying about technical aspects that they’re in the bathroom throwing up all launch, then as a clinician you share those concerns with leadership.”

Over three years later—when the shuttle Columbia did launch—Dr. Dillinger had taken a sabbatical from the Air Force to pursue a one-year Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Aviation Psychology at the University of Illinois.

So that’s where she was on that fateful February morning in 2003—a morning eerily similar to the one all those years before in Iowa. Dr. Dillinger was driving to meet up with family and friends in Decatur, Ill. when the news broke on her car radio.

The Columbia Space Shuttle had gone missing. The signal had disappeared and NASA officials suspected they lost the whole orbiter.

“I pulled over and was pretty upset because I knew … I knew,” she says, adding that in the investigation community, what would happen next was obvious. “I called the General to say, ‘I’ve heard,’ and we both knew what that meant. He responded, ‘Are your bags packed?’ In this kind of international investigative work, your bags are always packed in case of an emergency. So I turned the car around, got my bags, and flew out to Houston. We worked the travel orders out later.”

Dr. Dillinger, then still active duty with the USAF—Lt. Col. Dillinger—joined the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) to determine the organizational factors that might  have influenced the mishap, working with high-level officials from a variety of government entities. The final report is in several volumes looking at technical and organizational areas, however Volume 1, Chapter 7, addresses the organizational aspects specifically.

“With the Columbia, we knew it wasn’t the actions of the crew, who were casualties in the mishap, that were critical to the accident. Determining the  decision-making and actions of people on ground—beforehand was where the ‘latent’ embedded risks existed,” she says explaining that she conducted months of daily interviews for the CAIB. “You’ve got to talk to all the people and understand why they did what they did.”

Today, after serving 21 years in the Air Force,  retired as a Lt. Col. in 2010, and hired by NASA that same year, Dr. Dillinger leads two critical NASA safety programs; safety culture and human factors.

Her expertise continues to secure the safety and mental health of men and women whose mission takes them to the skies—and sometimes into outer space.

She is a proud mother, grandmother, and recently, great-grandmother, and says she has seen and experienced more in her career than she ever could have imagined back at The Chicago School.

“My intention was not to end up where I am,” says Dr. Dillinger. “I was more driven by personal interactions—pure clinical work at first. But over time one thing led to another. To stop a fatigued pilot from making a fatal mistake, you need to influence the fatigue policy, and when that’s not enforced, you need to address those failures with leadership and headquarters. My whole career has been about observing behavioral science in real-life settings, not just clinical. And I have had many opportunities to make a difference.”

She wouldn’t trade the journey she has taken for anything, and says she remains grateful for the influence The Chicago School had on helping her find her professional mission.

“The Chicago School gave me everything I needed to be where I am today,” Dr. Dillinger says. “I am proud to see how the school has grown. The sky’s the limit for this next generation of practitioners. My advice to them is to follow their passions and don’t let anything hold you back from doing what you know is right.”



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