Lt. Col. Zac “CHAOS” Proano earned a master’s degree in applied mathematics from the Air Force Institute of Technology’s Graduate School of Engineering and Management in 2006. “I valued my time at AFIT and enjoyed being able to focus as a full-time student on active-duty immediately after commissioning. It was eye-opening to experience what graduate-level work is like, especially on an accelerated timeline. It was challenging, but also a huge confidence booster,” recalled Proano. “I give full credit to Dr. [Aihua] Wood, my thesis advisor, and Dr. [Alan] Lair who really helped me with my studies. They took a lot more time with me than I would have received at a civilian university. They really helped get me cross the finish line, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without their guidance early in my career.”
His graduate thesis titled “Existence of Large Solutions to Non-Monotone Semilinear Elliptic Equations” focused on semi-elliptic partial differential equation theory and was published in the Australian Journal of Mathematical Analysis and Applications in 2007. The effort to research and write a thesis has proven beneficial for Proano who said “it provided me with a larger aperture academically and cognitively to succeed in a variety of missions I have done throughout my career, even on the operational flying side as a Weapon Systems Officer (WSO) it has proven beneficial.”
“The great thing about AFIT is that we are able to capstone graduate level education and research to enhance the Air Force mission; graduates serve a vital purpose – to ensure commanders have advanced technologies in the field and accelerate future combat capabilities for the Air Force to compete and win,” said Proano.
Proano’s advice for new students is to make time in and out of the classroom to build relationships with classmates, stay positive, and embrace the rigor. “It’s going to be hard and challenging,” he said. “There were plenty of moments, especially during the thesis phase, when I thought I wasn’t going to finish, but that is where you have to lean on relationships forged, and remember your professors want you to succeed, seek their counsel early and often. Enjoy the grind, find moments to enjoy small victories each quarter, and keep perspective on the great things yet to be achieved, have fun.”
Following graduation, Proano was a Flight Test Engineer and Operational Analyst for Air Force Special Operations Command and later selected to attend Undergraduate Flight Training as a Combat Systems Officer (CSO). He was the number one overall graduate of his class, distinguished graduate, academic award winner, and recognized by the Daughters of the American Revolution as the number one overall CSO Student of the year in 2010. All of which he attributes to the foundation achieved while at AFIT.
Proano’s current assignment is the Analysis Branch Chief in Headquarters Air Force Strategic Planning Integration Division (AF/A8XP), where he is in charge of developing the Air Force's 30-year resource allocation plan. “Blessed and humbled to have the opportunity to serve in A8; you get to see every aspect of where the Air Force is going in the future, at a very high level,” said Proano. It’s a very challenging and rewarding assignment, especially balancing fiscal constraints and accelerating desired capabilities, but Proano and his team remain focused on bringing future high-end fight capability to the here and now much faster. “It’s rewarding to come full circle in my career and apply some analysis rigor, using knowledge the AFIT team helped me develop,” said Proano.
Proano is also a B-52H Instructor/Evaluator WSO and most recently served as the Chief Flight Examiner for all of Air Force Global Strike Command and Deputy Division Chief for AFGSC/A3T. Additionally, he served three years in a data masked assignment as an F-16D Test WSO responsible for a $5 billion dollar portfolio of 100 classified programs. A rated Senior CSO with 1,492 flight hours, he led initial flight testing of the MC-130W and TH-1H helicopter, flew over 70 national priority test missions supporting F-35, F-22, B-2, advanced prototype aircraft, and has flown 15 aircraft during his career.
“My education at AFIT provided an amazing foundation for my entire career,” said Proano.
A foundation he would like to expand by continuing his pursuit of being an astronaut, which was a driving force for Proano joining the Air Force. In 2016 and then again in 2020, he was selected by the Air Force as an astronaut candidate to NASA.
Proano received his commission through Air Force ROTC, graduating Cum Laude from the University of North Dakota in 2004. “I was always drawn to the Air Force because I wanted to fly,” said Proano who enjoyed attending air shows and watching the Thunderbirds as a kid with his father, an Air Force Veteran who inspired him to a life of service.
Seventeen years later, he is committed to the Air Force mission, and continues to serve most of all because of the people. “Across all of my assignments, the amazing people I have met, worked with, and learned from, have become part of my family that I can rely on anytime, anywhere,” said Proano.