For Karyta Barnes, it's always time to 'spread your wings'
On a late summer morning in 2015, Karyta Barnes lay motionless in a hospital bed. Her eyes were fixated on television news coverage of a particularly deadly weekend for small planes. A day earlier, Barnes crash-landed her single-engine plane in a wooded area behind a house in Bristow, Va.
She was flying alone and practicing approaches into nearby Manassas Regional Airport when the plane lost power. Barnes tried to glide her way back to the airport but the plane began descending too quickly. That’s when she remembered some advice from friend and mentor Tom Adams, a longtime commercial pilot.
“I was coming in on my descent and I had to make a decision so I thought about something Tom always told me. ‘Take a close look, evaluate where you are, and handle your business,’” says Barnes. “I saw I was very close to a community and I told myself ‘Not on my watch. Not today. It’s not going to happen.’”
Barnes knew she had two full fuel tanks and that planes veer to the left. She spotted a large tree and maneuvered close enough to cut off the left wing to dump fuel to prevent a fire. Moments before hitting the ground, Barnes again thought back to something she had learned.
“Because of my background in radiology, I knew when I came down, do not move, do not do anything. I stayed as still as I could,” says Barnes.
She was airlifted to a local hospital and remained hospitalized for more than six weeks. Barnes suffered 17 fractures and spent four months recovering before she felt well enough to return to work. Initially, she wore a purple neck brace, earning a playful moniker from coworkers: the purple turtle.
Today, almost five years after her accident, Barnes is at the pinnacle of her professional life.
A modern day technology leader
Barnes is a Senior Network Security Engineer at Leidos. She specializes in digital forensics and incident response. This Friday, she and a dozen colleagues will be recognized for their career achievements and honored as Modern Day Technology Leaders at the 34th annual Black Engineer of the Year Award (BEYA) Stem Conference in Washington, D.C. Two other colleagues will receive the Dr. Christopher Jones Legacy Award and the Science Spectrum Trailblazer Award.
BEYA is a yearly gathering for STEM professionals and students, providing valuable training and networking opportunities with peers and top employers. Barnes says her recognition is a “little overwhelming and very humbling” because she wasn’t sure what direction she wanted to go in when she was growing up. She points out that neither of her degrees – a Bachelors in business and finance and an Associates in radiologic technology, both from Howard University – are overly technical.
Barnes grew up in the National Capital Region. An only child, her father worked for the federal government and her mother was a teacher. In young Karyta, they saw great potential.
“One of the things my parents always told me was that I was going to have opportunities that they didn’t and that I had to be willing to take advantage of them,” says Barnes. “If I wanted to try something, I was going to try it.”
In 11th grade Barnes landed a job in the Pentagon supporting the Department of the Air Force’s Logistics and Engineering Division. A GS2, she worked for a Brigadier General and his second in command Colonel John Reidy, who began mentoring Barnes. She stayed in the position partway through college, leaving to go work for Reidy after he started his own company.
“From the beginning, he encouraged me and told me ‘There are no limits for you. You can do anything you want to,’” says Barnes. “I’ll never forget him telling me this as I was going through high school and college.”
Whenever Reidy felt Barnes had reached her potential in a role or on a project, he would tell her, “OK, it’s time for you to spread your wings again.” And Barnes would every time. After she graduated college, Reidy said “You can’t work here anymore. You have two degrees, go figure it out. It’s time for you to spread your wings.”
Learning by doing, and finding time to give back
Barnes put her radiology degree to use and began working at area hospitals. She spent time at “just about every hospital in the D.C. metro area.” Eventually, Barnes left to start her own consulting business.
“One of my clients called and said, ‘Hey, we just got a shipment of computers and don’t know what to do with them. Do you know anything about computers?’” says Barnes. “I said ‘a little bit’ and he told me to see what I wanted to do with them.”
Col. Reidy once told Barnes to “always take the projects nobody else wants because that’s what’s going to teach you the most.” Remembering that advice, she decided to take a shot at the computers. Barnes learned quickly and became very interested in technology, starting down her current career path.
Over the last 25 years, she has worked at or in support of several government agencies. Her technical prowess has frequently placed her on the front lines of high-profile and complex federal IT initiatives. But her professional accomplishments tell only part of the story.
Among her many personal interests, Barnes is a world traveler, distance runner, and a drone builder and pilot. She runs 12 to 15 races a year in the 5K to half-marathon range. Last year, she completed her first international race, a half-marathon through a wildlife conservancy in Nairobi, Kenya.
“I saw some zebras and a giraffe. I saw plenty of monkeys and some baboons,” says Barnes.
The trip allowed Barnes to combine her passion for running with her love for travel. She spent 20 days touring Kenya. She explored Mount Kenya, climbed a gorge in Hell’s Gate National Park, visited the Equator, and went on several game drives. Barnes’ parents enjoyed traveling and always took her with them, helping her develop an interest in experiencing different cultures. With the exception of Asia, she’s been to almost every part of the world.
Her sense for adventure is what led her to begin flying planes in 2012. On a whim, she accepted a colleague’s invitation to join him for a discovery flight one weekend. Barnes was immediately hooked and within weeks passed her FAA physical, completed pre-coursework to get registered as a student pilot, and enrolled at Dulles Aviation, where Tom Adams was the chief flight instructor.
Adams taught Barnes everything she knows about flying. As her exclusive trainer, he became like an extended family member. Twice a year, Barnes would join Adams in hosting a day of aviation fun for African-American children from local schools. In 2018, Adams revealed that he had cancer and soon reached a point where he could no longer fly. After his death in 2019, Barnes decided to take a step back from flying.
She has turned her attention to building and flying drones. Her new passion connected her with an African-American owned organization called Women and Drones, which introduces young girls to the unmanned aircraft industry and careers in STEM and aviation.
“I love working with those girls. They find it to be really cool and fascinating to see women working with drones,” says Barnes. “They need to have mentors and people to support them whether they go into STEM or something else.”
In recent years, Barnes has begun mentoring young professionals. She currently has four mentees and shares the same wisdom with all of them: “Put your mind to whatever it is you want to do. Make a commitment and keep it. You’re going to fail. You’re going to do things wrong. Things aren’t going to go your way. But you can’t be afraid and you have to be ready to take your opportunities.”
In other words, “spread your wings.”