Rhonda Walthall, shown accepting the 2016 SAE James M. Crawford Technical Standards Award for Outstanding Achievement, was recently named the 2018 recipient of the Rodica Baranescu Award for Technical & Leadership Excellence in Commercial Vehicle Engineering award.

Big data takes to the skies

Aerospace engineer wins prestigious award for her visionary advancements in flight safety.

Growing up in a small town in Ohio, Rhonda Walthall frequently passed Neil Armstrong’s farm, where he’d retired after his accomplished career as an astronaut, aeronautical engineer, naval aviator, test pilot, and most memorably, the first person to walk on the moon. Although they never met, his legacy as a pioneer inspired her to embark on her own impressive career in aviation and aerospace.

Walthall knew she wanted a career that was more than a traditional job for women. As valedictorian of her high school class, her speech was titled “If you can dream it, you can achieve it”—and after graduation, she chose to follow in Armstrong’s “moonsteps” and study aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue University, his alma mater. As an undergrad, she took graduate-level classes in solid and liquid rocket propulsion, preparing for a career in rocketry—but when she graduated, career opportunities were limited due to the recent Challenger disaster, and she turned her focus to airplanes instead.

She’s now at the forefront of using aircraft data to assess aircraft and component performance and detect impending failures. In her 30-year career, she’s been a flight test engineer in the MD-11 and C-17 programs at McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company, an engineer for Northwest Airlines, and an engineer, manager, director, and now Technical Fellow for UTAS, the world’s largest aerospace system integrator and supplier. While at McDonnell Douglas, she became the first civilian woman to fly on a C-17, spending long days in the sky or at her desk analyzing the data. And since 2010, she’s led the development of the Aircraft System Health Management (ASHM) tool for UTAS. ASHM is a web-based prognostic and diagnostic tool to monitor and manage the health of aircraft fleet and systems.

“Engine failure rates are way down due to systems like these,” Walthall said. “We’re now able to use big data to see indications of problems that are developing so that maintenance can be completed before there’s an incident on the aircraft.”

Walthall’s groundbreaking work has resulted in more than 90 airlines sharing data for nearly 3000 aircraft. And now, she’s spearheading the development of Ascentia, a new tool that’s built on the foundation of ASHM, integrates more data sources, and is cloud based to allow for the use of big data. It debuted at the MRO Americas Conference in Orlando this April.

“Prognostic health monitoring of aircraft components and systems has expanded beyond aircraft engines to other key systems, such as environmental control, electric power generation, landing systems, fuel systems and flight actuation,” she said, “and now, the use of big data allows prognostics to go beyond predictive maintenance to prescriptive maintenance.”

Walthall’s important contributions to flight safety systems aren’t going unrecognized. She was recently named the 2018 recipient of the Rodica Baranescu Award for Technical & Leadership Excellence in Commercial Vehicle Engineering award. This award celebrates the successes of women in the engineering profession and recognizes their leadership and technical contributions in the aerospace, automotive and commercial vehicle sectors—and it comes on the heels of winning the 2016 SAE James M. Crawford Technical Standards Award for Outstanding Achievement.

She’s also active in supporting and advancing the aerospace industry, serving as Chair for numerous SAE standards development committees and on the Board of Directors of the Prognostics and Health Management (PHM) Society. “Rhonda has been a huge asset to SAE’s entire program, as well as to the wider engineering and aerospace community,” said David Alexander, Director of Aerospace Standards, SAE International.

For Walthall, her work isn’t only professionally rewarding, it’s personally rewarding too. She’s still driven by the passion that propelled her from rural Ohio to the top of her profession. “I’m inspired by my industry colleagues who share the same passion as I do,” she said, “to exploit the value of aircraft data to achieve maximum benefit for all mobility customers”—and maximum safety every time a commercial airplane takes flight.

To learn more about the Rodica Baranescu Award for Technical & Leadership Excellence in Commercial Vehicle Engineering Award, and other SAE Awards, please visit the SAE Awards page.

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