Outstanding Aerospace Engineer Class of 2020: Rhonda Walthall
Without fail, every time alumna Rhonda Walthall visits Purdue University’s campus, she is overwhelmed. In the best way.
Sometimes, tears fill her eyes as she walks the Union, remembering all the hours spent there during undergrad in the 1980s.
She pauses by John Purdue’s grave, glancing across the Memorial Mall and seeing regal University Hall and the Math Sciences Building. Memories are summoned of the unnatural wind tunnel experience the latter provided, and it brings a smile.
She slips past Grissom Hall, recounting the hours expended in the computer lab and the study lounge, surrounded by like-minded students yearning to make it. She reflects back on certain courses and how the entirety of her high school Calculus was covered in the first two weeks at Purdue. She remembers Professor Kathleen Howell’s challenging orbital mechanics class that required a couple students meeting every week to simply get through the homework — and how that rigor helped produce a determined, prepared professional.
She passes the apartment from her senior year, memories rushing in about studying for her last final. How she sat on the bed crying, feeling that she had reached the maximum capacity of her brain — and how she pressed on, passed that final and graduated.
The West Lafayette campus has many special spots that allow Walthall to reminisce, as memories flood over her. The first day she stepped on campus, the first in her family to attend college. The young, naïve 18-year-old from small-town Ohio intent on tackling engineering while most of her girlfriends had opted to study nursing or teaching.
Walthall wanted something different for herself. Intentionally, she looked for a career that was counter to the traditional female role of her generation. And she found it in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Walthall seized the opportunity, using the engineering education as a springboard to a rewarding, impactful career as an expert in prognostics and health management and a respected technical fellow, building precious new memories at each step along the way.
“I feel I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve been able to travel so many places all around the world, seen so many things, experienced so much that I would have never experienced had I not gone to Purdue and got this degree,” Walthall said. “My degree has opened doors in my career, and I will be forever grateful for that. Whenever I visit the campus, I feel a sense of pride just thinking about this is where it all started. Memories of some tough times but immense pride that I stuck it out, that I made it through. I have my entire career to thank for the education that I got at Purdue.”
And, now, Walthall will join an elite group in the School.
She was selected as an Outstanding Aerospace Engineer, the highest alumni honor bestowed by AAE. OAEs have been given to only 2 percent of alumni. Walthall (BSAAE ’86) and eight others will be celebrated April 12 during a virtual event.
“This is just an incredible honor,” Walthall said. “I would have never dreamed that I would ever receive this award, this recognition from Purdue. It does mean a tremendous amount to me because I had to fight tooth and nail to get through Purdue and graduate. Then to have this recognition is beyond words.”
Once Purdue revealed an ability to persevere and a realization she could overcome challenges, Walthall never stopped pressing on and rising up.
In her first job after graduating from AAE, Walthall was a diligent flight test engineer, devoting 16-hour days to testing and retesting and collecting data as part of the McDonnell-Douglas MD-11 program.
It was a relentless experience.
If the airplane was leaving at 6 a.m., that was the start of the day. If the airplane was taking a 12-hour cruise flight, that was the amount of time spent on the plane. Even if the airplane didn’t have all of its insulation and flying at 30,000 feet meant daily work apparel included thermal underwear under a flight suit, a parka, earmuffs and the thickest gloves possible. Even if it meant hopping off the plane at Yuma Arizona in 110-degree heat while looking like an overstuffed engineer. If a cruise flight didn’t have a backup engineer and back-to-back flights were required, that meant 26 consecutive hours.
The MD-11 program was particularly challenging because it was behind schedule and it was a commercial program — working hours weren’t limited. But Walthall pulled from her Purdue experience, arranging her life to do what needed to get done. The end point was there, she just had to work through it. And she did.
Her second program, happily, offered a different perspective.
The C-17 program was a military program, which meant that all flight crew members were restricted to 12-hour crew duty days. For safety reasons, no crew member could still be flying on a C-17 beyond 12 hours of when the first crew member arrived on the base. The program wasn’t as draining as the MD-11 work, but it still was full of learning experiences.
And some cool ones, too.
“We were flying out over Death Valley and the Panamint Valley and then we would go out to the Pacific Ocean to fly in a restricted military area. On one flight, an aircraft carrier was clearly visible below us, and they dispatched F-18s to check us out. No one had seen a C-17 at the time so they were curious. The F-18s were basically flying in formation with us, checking out the airplane, and it was really cool,” she said. “I had fun. I loved being a flight test engineer.”
The work was detailed and intensive. Walthall worked with flight test data when simulation models weren’t available, so she had to be able to look at raw data and identify trends. She enjoyed the process, and it intrigued her.
When she went to work for Northwest Airlines Technical Operations, she was able to dive into that kind of work even more. She was responsible for over 200 large-body aircraft — 747s, A320 and DC-10s among them — and monitored the engines daily. That built upon her interest in engine condition monitoring.
“I really believed what I was doing was keeping passengers safe and helping airplanes to keep flying,” she said.
The necessity of that role was confirmed more than once.
On one occasion, Walthall returned from vacation to a stack of printouts on her desk. She’d get new data from the aircraft each day. Everything was a hard copy — there were no computer models at the time.
When Walthall flipped through the printouts, she came across data for a 747-400 aircraft, one of the trans-Pacific airplanes. And she paused. There was a huge trend shift on an engine. She’d never seen anything like it on one of those engines. She ran to the maintenance control desk and said, “We have a really, really big problem on this aircraft and on this engine.”
The maintenance controller already had the pilot on the phone: They’d just lost the engine. In flight. The plane was only halfway across the Pacific. The pilot was trying to decide whether to turn back or continue on. They opted to continue on and were able to fly to safety because of the three remaining healthy engines.
But Walthall felt a weight. She knew if someone had been looking at the data, the trend would have been spotted in advance.
That kind of incident, though, validated the work, and Walthall noticed later that when she’d come back from a weekend, the maintenance controller had been to her desk and flipped through her files.
“They started to trust me and to trust the data to the point where if I wasn’t there and they thought there might be a problem, they were looking at the data. That had never really happened before,” she said. “There were numerous times when I was able to prevent things from happening. I actually stopped a few flights from taking off so that they could go out and work on a problem with an engine. That’s where I felt I made an impact and what I did was really important to industry and passenger safety.”
When Walthall joined United Technologies Corporation in 2003, she still hadn’t decided if she wanted to pursue a technical or management path. She started as a systems engineer before being promoted to an integrated product team leader. In 2010, she transferred to customer service to lead the development and implementation of the Aircraft Systems Health Management aftermarket service offering, which was UTC’s first prognostics and health management (PHM) application for commercial aircraft systems.
“I had a lot of opportunities to be successful in leadership positions, but part of me always still really admired the technical experts because I viewed them as people who were not political. They’re the ones I went to when I needed advice. So, in the back of my mind, I’d always been thinking I wanted to be like them and become a fellow or be considered the technical expert in the company,” she said.
When she first arrived at UTC, though, it wasn’t particularly focused on PHM. Walthall fostered her interest by getting involved with SAE International and working with people around the world on standards development for engine health management and aircraft health management. She developed expertise and a network of peers through SAE International. By the time UTC was ready, Walthall was waiting.
In 2018, Walthall and another female colleague became the first PHM fellows at Collins. Walthall was selected as an engineering fellow despite working outside of the engineering organization, a first for the company.
But Walthall wanted back into engineering — she wasn’t happy with an aftermarket group that presented “some distinct challenges to being a fellow on that team” — so she requested a transfer. It was granted, and she was able to focus on driving PHM capability into Collins’ products.
She leads the Design for PHM Initiative for the Connected Aircraft and is an industry-recognized leader in the development of standards and best practices for PHM and Integrated Vehicle Health Management.
Walthall called being promoted to fellow the most rewarding moment of her career.
“I felt like it was a recognition of my value and worth to the company,” she said. “Now that I’m back in engineering, I have a tremendous amount of support. I’m very happy now.”
More on 2020 class of OAEs:
March 29: Doug Adams
March 30: Chris Clark
March 31: Darin DiTommaso
April 1: Doug Joyce
April 2: Yen Matsutomi
April 5: Loral O'Hara
April 6: David Schmidt
April 7: Stevan Slijepcevic