AAE alumna co-authors book on women in aerospace

Rhonda Walthall (BSAAE '86, OAE '20) hopes "Flight Paths to Success," in which female aerospace engineers share personal career journeys, will be of particular interest to female aerospace engineers in their early-to-mid careers.

Rhonda Walthall was busy.

She already was working on Edge™ Research Reports, chairing the HM-1 Health Management Standards Committee, participating on four other technical standards committees and steering groups, organizing sessions for the upcoming AeroTech Conference, and serving as a member of the SAE International Board of Directors in addition to her overflowing load in her role as technical fellow, enterprise engineering, at Collins Aerospace.

Book cover
Cover of "Flight Paths to Success: Career Insights from Women Leaders in Aerospace

But when a representative from SAE reached out and asked Walthall to write a book about women in aerospace, Walthall couldn’t say no. She’d always wanted to partner with SAE on a book, and SAE’s recent book about women in the automotive industry was a best seller for the global association of engineers and technical experts in aerospace, automotive and commercial-vehicle industries in 2019 and 2020.

To share the load, Walthall asked friend and colleague Brenda Mitchell to co-edit the book. They reached out to women in aerospace, both in technical and executive roles, looking for a wide breadth of experiences and perspectives. The goal: Share personal career journeys that would be of particular interest to female aerospace engineers in their early-to-mid careers.

Walthall (BSAAE ’86) thinks they achieved a great mix in “Flight Paths to Success: Career Insights from Women Leaders In Aerospace.”

“It was actually a really nice experience,” Walthall said of the book, on sale today. “I had been on the other side where I had someone who was acting as the editor of a book and asked me to write a chapter. This time for this book, I was the editor of the book picking people to write chapters. So it was the flip side of the experience that I’d had before.

“It’s really inspirational to hear all these women’s perspectives on their careers in aerospace. I’m pretty excited for it to come out. We’re hoping this will be a best seller for SAE in 2021 and 2022.”

The book features women at varying stages of their careers, ranging from one still in college to a few who are retired. Walthall and Mitchell, the vice president of engineering, certification and ODA at Aloft AeroArchitects, wanted to feature women who started out in engineering and went on to become successful leaders in the management track, engineering track or academia. Walthall and Mitchell came up with five topics — personal career insight, work-life balance, mentorship/sponsorship, avoiding a career stall and powering through challenging situations — and asked women to answer at least one question within those categories to fill the book’s Q&A chapter format.

“All of the stories are different enough that I think (readers) will find a nugget in each and every one of them,” Mitchell said during an SAE Mobilus virtual event. “When Rhonda and I first read the first draft, it was like, ‘This is phenomenal.’ It blew us away. It exceeded our expectation. … (Readers) will be, ‘Oh, wow. Oh, wow.’”

Walthall said she appreciated how each of the women’s personalities came through, as they were writing in their own words.

Rhonda Walthall

“Each one was a little bit different,” Walthall said. “Some of the chapters made me laugh. Some of them caused me tear up. Some of them were like, ‘Yeah, that’s the way to do it.’ I really enjoyed each one. Seeing the variety of women and what they’ve accomplished, it was a very exciting read.”

That includes chapters with Purdue flair.

Of the 33 women featured, six are associated with Purdue. Four are connected to AAE — Professors Alina Alexeenko and Kathleen Howell and alumnae Beth Moses and Tamaira Ross. Walthall is on AAE’s Industrial Advisory Council with Moses and Ross.

“I really wanted people from the space side of business because I’ve always worked commercial aviation, so I didn’t have a lot of reach into space organizations, but I knew Beth and Tamaira, and I knew they were exceptional in their careers,” Walthall said. “Beth is an astronaut, which is super cool, and Tamaira’s job is super cool at Blue Origin. Tamaira also was a fellow at Boeing before she went to the position she is in now. They’re both leaders. I knew they were perfect for the book.

“They were both really, really forthcoming with the information.”

Ross shared several personal stories, including details on why she decided not to make a move that may have advanced her career and instances of when she has taken “leaps of faith” throughout her career.

“I contributed to the book because I think the collection of so many accomplished women’s perspectives, written in their own words, can help others in technical fields,” Ross (BSAAE ’96, MSAAE ’98) said. “I hope that these stories provide inspiration and insight for women in engineering.”

BUY THE BOOK: Flight Paths to Success: Career Insights from Women Leaders In Aerospace on SAE.org.