Jen Uchida is flying high above the Earth aboard the latest Gulfstream jet, the G600. The 2004 BS/MS aerospace graduate isn't the typical passenger for this type of plane – she is not a high-powered corporate executive or well-known public figure, but then again, this is not a typical Gulfstream.
On this trip, there are no flight attendants or plush interior accoutrements, because this is one of the first times the G600 has ever been airborne. The plane is undergoing required testing to earn its airworthiness certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Uchida is a flight test engineer at Gulfstream, and central to the certification process. From her perch in the cabin, Uchida is monitoring the aircraft’s performance in real-time.
"This job is so dynamic and I love that. Not every day is at a desk. When we do flight tests, I might be on the airplane at an engineering station, giving the pilot directions so we can collect data," she says.
While telling a pilot what to do could lead you to be considered a backseat driver, or in this case, flyer, Uchida has earned her chops, and not just because she is a licensed pilot, albeit on smaller planes. She has knowledge and direct experience as a rare civilian graduate of the US Naval Test Pilot School.
Naval Air Systems Command
While Uchida is a proud Gulfstream employee today, she previously spent nine years as a flight test engineer at NAVAIR, Naval Air Systems Command.
"The school is for the military, but NAVAIR selects a few civil servants for each class so that we as engineers know exactly what the pilots face and can bring that back to the rest of the workforce," she says.
It gave her a chance to spend time aboard a long list of well-known aircraft, including the F-18, F-16, T-38, B-25, even the diminutive DHC-2 Beaver bush plane -- the Navy trains on all order of flying machines.
At NAVAIR, she was primarily assigned to the V-22 Osprey, developing test plans, tracking upgrades, and monitoring telemetry on dozens of flights before and after the tilt rotor aircraft went into operational service.
The work she was doing was important and exciting, but did have a downside: NAVAIR is based in Maryland. As a Colorado native, Uchida had to move there for the job. It was a state where she had no connections, family, or friends, and made for a difficult transition. Ever since, she has tried to help others have better experiences.
"I'm very passionate about connecting with and mentoring young engineers. I want to make sure people can benefit from what I've learned," she says.
It is just one of the ways Uchida gives back. She's active in professional organizations and works to promote science and engineering to children through the Society of Women Engineers.
"I volunteer for outreach events and will run hands-on activities for kids. Talking to 100 students can be tiring, but it's so worth it when you know you've made a connection. Having a little girl light up when you explain a concept, you realize, 'She's going to be a great engineer'," Uchida says.
Of course, even with a positive experience, students can lose that spark, particularly if it is not nurtured by other adults in their lives, but Uchida has that covered too.
"I help organize a great annual event for kids that also includes a parent/educator section. We want to give them the resources to encourage their children’s interest in STEM fields," she says.
Uchida’s ultimate goal is to instill in students the same joy for engineering she feels.
"I'm so passionate about aerospace,” she says. “I have a smile on my face every day and I'm excited to come to work every day. Not everyone can say that.”