Cornelia "Corky" Townsend (AeroEngr '85) takes her role as chief project engineer for Boeing's 747 Program very seriously. After all, it's a big responsibility to ensure the safety of everyone who flies a 747 jetliner. According to Boeing, 100,000 people are in the air in 747s at any given time of day.
But Townsend also loves the idea of designing airplanes and is awed by their grandeur. "They're these big—huge—things," she says. "We walk past the airplanes every day, and it's really magical because they can take you around the world."
Townsend chose aerospace engineering as her major even before she started college and was awarded a Boeing scholarship during her junior and senior years. She subsequently chose to enter the commercial airline business because she thought her destiny would depend upon her own capabilities, not the ups and downs of various government programs. "I'd rather have my success or failure depend on what I do," she says.
Sure, the airline industry has been challenging, particularly since 9/11 and the outbreak of SARS in Asia, Townsend says. But things are improving. The market for passenger airplanes is projected to grow 4.8 percent per year, and for freighters 6.2 percent, through 2024, according to Boeing.
"Safety and security has become a forefront issue—you have to pay to play," Townsend says. "But we've gotten better. There is a constant evolution with an ever-increasing bar."
Technology also has advanced to the point where economics is now the biggest challenge in the industry, she says. While some new technologies continue to be introduced, the biggest question now is: "How do we provide the most value to our customers?"
These days, Townsend is focused on Boeing's 747-8, a new jetliner expected to enter service in 2009. The 747-8 Intercontinental is a "stretched" version of the 747-400, having 450 seats compared to 416 in the older model and greater fuel efficiency, thus delivering greater profitability to the airlines. The 747-8 Freighter, meanwhile, offers 16 percent larger cargo volume than its predecessor. Boeing launched the new airplane in November 2005 with $5 billion in orders from Cargolux of Luxembourg and NCA of Japan.
"The 747 is a wonderful airplane. For many people, it's been their most favored airplane. It's really brought the world together to be a much closer place," Townsend says. "I started on the 747-400 program in 1985 after graduating from CU, so for me, it has come full circle. It has a special place in my heart."
Townsend has risen in the company through a variety of engineering and management assignments, both because of her engineering abilities and her interest in the economic drivers behind airplane design. She earned an MBA at Seattle University in 1991, which she says helped her to understand the design decisions that had to be made. She was promoted from deputy chief project engineer and airplane level integration team leader to chief project engineer for the 747 program in August 2003, taking the reins from another woman engineer.
Townsend's husband also works at Boeing, serving as chief engineer on a program involving after-sale conversions of passenger models to freighters. Although he also is from Colorado, the two met at a Boeing employee volleyball game. "I was wearing a CU broomball shirt, and he's a (CSU) Ram," she says.
Her advice to new engineering graduates: "The biggest challenge for young engineers is that they really believe they can do all kinds of things—they have all this energy—so when they come into a large organization like Boeing, there's a structure in place and they sometimes feel stifled. I would encourage them to continually push the system and try to make a difference, but also to listen to what other people are saying. There is history that needs to be taken into consideration, so it's a balancing act. The reason is that the outcome is so important and has such a huge impact on people's lives."