Inspired by aviators and astronauts, Rhonda Walthall turned an early love of airplanes into a successful career as an engineer (and Collins Technical Fellow). Here’s what she’s learned along the way as a woman working in aerospace.
If Neil Armstrong had looked out the window of his farmhouse in Lebanon, Ohio in the late 1970s, he might have seen a teenaged, future aerospace engineer named Rhonda Walthall waving as she went by. Walthall’s family lived close, and she always hoped to catch a glimpse of the famous astronaut.
“Growing up, I loved everything about airplanes and space,” said Walthall, now a Collins Aerospace Technical Fellow and an industry leader in advancing Integrated Aircraft Health Management technologies. “I always did well in science and math but had no exposure to engineering. Back then, there were no girls allowed in shop class – we had to take home economics. I refused to take typing or shorthand, because I wanted to get away from all the stereotypes. I wanted something different, and I knew I’d have to find it for myself.”
While she never actually saw Armstrong, Walthall was inspired to follow his footsteps to his alma mater, Purdue University. It was there, while earning her degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering that she met other young women exploring careers in science. Walthall’s less-than-stellar eyesight dashed her dream of becoming an astronaut, but a dream to become an aerospace engineer took its place.
“As much as I loved aviation, I didn’t fly on a plane until my junior year,” she recalled with a laugh. “In those days, some planes had rows of seats that faced one another. I flew the entire way from Indianapolis to Hartford – to my first Society of Women Engineers conference of all things – facing backwards! I had never flown before, so I didn’t know the difference.”
Walthall spent very little time looking back after that. Her first job out of college was with McDonnell Douglas, where she was a principal flight test engineer for the company’s C-17 program and the first civilian woman to fly on the aircraft. She also worked as a power plant engineer for Northwest Airlines before arriving at Collins 18 years ago and working her way up to her current position. In addition to her day job working in predictive analytic solutions for aircraft, she’s an industry technical advisor for Purdue and serves in leadership roles for SAE International and the Prognostics and Health Management Society.
She is also invested in the futures of current and aspiring engineers. As an advocate for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs, Walthall mentors early-to-mid career engineers at Collins, hosts “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” events for the Collins Charlotte office and works with other organizations, such as FIRST’s Project Scientist, with a mission to inspire girls to stay the course in STEM.
“I want the next generation to feel more comfortable seeking support for their careers than I was,” she explained. “Mentors, whether they are older, younger, male, female, in or outside your company, above or below you in the organization, are more objective than your friends and family. They can help you see that you’re ready for the next thing, even if you’re not so sure.”
She makes a distinction between having a mentor – someone you reach out to and ask for guidance – and having a sponsor.
“Sponsors come forward and speak on your behalf,” she said. “You may not even know you have a sponsor, but they see you at work, know what you’re capable of, and advocate for you behind the scenes. Most often, sponsors choose you.”
Walthall says she didn’t realize how important sponsors were, or even what they were, until she realized she had some helping her.
“To have a sponsor, you need to be visible, wherever you are on your career path. And for some women – especially those who are more introverted or may be working in a remote location, it’s easy not to be visible,” she added. “You have to challenge yourself to step forward out of your comfort zone.”
To that point, Walthall and her former boss and mentor – and now her friend -- Brenda Mitchell, recently co-authored a book about what it’s like for women building careers in aerospace and defense.
They interviewed 33 women and nearly all spoke about the support systems – at home and at work -- that enabled them to break through challenges and succeed. Walthall often says her husband, now retired from a successful aerospace career of his own, has always been her biggest champion.
When asked who her heroes are now, Walthall, who has blazed a few trails herself, answered: “Whether we’re talking about aviation pioneers like Bessie Coleman and Amelia Earhart who opened doors for us all, or the women leading in the industry today, I admire those who aren’t afraid to be the first to do something then pave the way for others to follow.”
Her advice for those engineering a career in aerospace or any other industry:
- Trust the people on your team to do their best work.
- Trying times are temporary. Keep the end goal in mind.
- Take care of yourself – don’t work so hard you overlook your health.
- Ask for help when you need it – it’s a sign of strength.
- There’s no success without support. Be gracious, share credit and thank people for their hard work.