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  • Writer's pictureApril Blackwell

The surprising place I found myself as an engineer

Today is International Women in Engineering Day 2021 and I thought it would be fun to take a look back at one of the most surprising places I found myself as an aerospace engineer. If you are considering a career in engineering I challenge you to lean into unexpected opportunities because you never know where you will go or what you will learn!

I really took that advice to heart as I moved across the country to Huntsville, AL for my first job straight out of college. Of course, as a life-long space nerd, I had my sights set on a job at NASA. Unfortunately NASA was in transition at the same time I was in my own transition from college to career so those coveted space jobs were in short supply. Keeping an open mind, I pivoted and took a job with an Army contractor as a Flight Test Engineer. I had no idea what I was getting myself into or the places I would find myself in this unique role!

So, where exactly did I find myself that was so surprising?

In the spring of 2013 I was thrilled to be selected to attend a short course at the revered Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, MD! If you know anything about NASA's history you know this place is a big deal. The plaques on the walls list some of the best: Alan Bean, Wally Schirra, Jim Lovell, Charles Bolden, Pete Conrad, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Sunita Williams, Mark and Scott Kelly, Anne McClain and Alan Shepard -- all astronauts and all graduates of the Naval Test Pilot School! These folks paved the way, they took the first flights of Redstones and Titans, they walked on the moon, they set records for spacewalks, they lived on the edge. And here I was, walking their halls, learning the same principles they were taught, and living a few weeks in a place that has become hallowed ground since their achievements.

For a young flight test engineer and space junkie, this was it! Many of my test pilot and flight test engineer colleagues had also graduated from NTPS, with the patches, the stories, and the flight hours to prove it. It really is a special place.

I was also beyond excited to find out that I would flying in a special Saab aircraft as part of the short course I was taking. It was something completely different than all the military helicopters I was used to flying in by that time. The Saab was equipped with many special gadgets to play with and test (it was a course about how to "test" things, after all).

I wasn't surprised that we would each have to meet with the Navy's flight doc just to be sure we were A-OK to fly onboard. I sent an email before the class to double-check that my recent FAA Class III medical would suffice, and after confirmation that it would, I stuffed it into a manila envelope to show the doc upon arrival.

So, if you're keeping score we have engineering degree (check), test pilot school (check), FAA medical (check), now I just needed to breeze through the one-on-one medical review.

Here's what happened:

Doc: "Hi, let me see your form."

Me: "Here it is."

Doc: "You have Type 1 Diabetes huh?"

Me: "Yes Sir, controlled via insulin pump and Continuous Glucose Monitor."

Doc: "Hmmm....a pump? I don't know that we can have those aboard the aircraft. There are unshielded wires and we are not sure how those might interact with the pump."

Me: [OK, I totally get that, good thing I brought backup] "I brought my insulin pen, so I can disconnect my pump during the flight and just do injections."

Doc: "Hmm...well a pump implies that you couldn't control your diabetes before."

Me: [completely flustered, did a doc really just say that?!] "No, it doesn't imply that. I have always had pretty good control, I chose to go on the pump about 12 years ago to maintain even tighter control, closer to a non-Diabetic's pancreas, and increase flexibility, it really had nothing to do with my level of control pre-pump."

Doc: "Ok...I will need to talk this over with the short course manager. Let me finish the others first."

After a brief intermission in the hall, with my mind still spinning wondering how I got pinged by a DOCTOR'S MISCONCEPTION OF INSULIN PUMPS I had a closed door meeting with the doc and the short course manager. After talking through the shielded wire issue (which, I totally understand), the agreement was to let me fly as long as I took my pump off, gave injections, and tested my blood sugar pre-flight. Ok, I can do all that. No problem.

Of course this story includes challenges with diabetes -- most of the good ones do.

Long story short, I flew on the Saab, diabetes and all. Even if your story doesn't include diabetes, I'm sure it has it's own challenges. Engineering is challenging by nature, that's what makes it fun and fulfilling! I never imagined myself flying onboard an aircraft at the Naval Test Pilot School as an aerospace engineer. That reality seemed absolutely outrageous in the midst of thermodynamics homework and writing vibration analysis lab reports (blergh). Keep your mind open -- you will be shocked where you will go and what you will do as an engineer!

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