Women in Engineering – Debbie’s Aviation Interest Helps High Flying Career Take Off

Rebekah Valero-Lee Aerospace and Defence

aviation engineeringWhen Debbie Thomas delivered a presentation to Airbus’ Future Programmes team in Toulouse recently, it was the culmination of a 30-month project to create an aircraft with more integrated systems to improve design and fuel efficiency.

“I’ve been working on the project for Airbus Group Innovations,” explains Debbie, whose love of aircraft goes back to when her father started taking flying lessons when she was just 14.

“When I used to get up early so that I could go with my Dad to the airfield at the crack of dawn, I never thought that I’d one day be involved in aviation design and engineering,” she says. “Even when I got my private pilot’s license aged 17 – before I could even drive a car – and studied STEM subjects at college, becoming an engineer wasn’t even on my radar.”

Debbie’s love of flying continued throughout her Maths and Astrophysics degree at Keele University and when she completed her studies by achieving a 1st class honours, she was focused on becoming a commercial airline pilot, applying for scholarships to help her realise her ambition.

“I got through to the final selection stages for a couple of the scholarships I’d applied for,” Debbie continues, “but then 9/11 happened and all scholarships were abolished overnight. I wasn’t quite sure what to do next so I just applied for lots of jobs that were a good fit with my skills and qualifications, falling into engineering thanks a graduate engineering scheme.”

After spending six months in a C Programming role, Debbie had enough experience to secure a position with the Modelling and Simulation team at Airbus and she worked there for several years, becoming a contractor in the aviation engineering sector.

“I originally left Airbus to work on a Boeing project in Cheltenham for a couple of years, where I developed the Boeing 787 landing gear health monitoring system. Since then I have been back to Airbus as a contract engineer several times with various projects including the last one with Morson, my career has enabled me to work on a really broad spectrum of long-term in depth projects and even fit in the arrival of a couple of children!”

Debbie’s most recent project for Airbus is now coming to an end and has involved working as part of a team of engineers from a consortium of UK businesses to look at electrical and propulsion systems, developing future technology that enables systems to be interfaced for improved fuel efficiency. The project has focused on making small improvements that deliver a significant combined difference in terms of engineering excellence with minimal risk or certification issues.

“The project has been really successful and if the research is continued forward, the technology would target a 2025-2030 aircraft” Debbie continues. “It’s been such a great experience working on something that could be so influential in future aircraft design, alongside specialists from prestigious companies like Rolls Royce, Honeywell, UTAS, GE, Safran and Raytheon.”

While completing the project, Debbie has been revisiting her goal of becoming a commercial airline pilot and is due to take the last module of her air transport pilots licence theory exams in a couple of months, while building up her flying hours.

“I love working as an engineer but, 15 years on, I’m still passionate about being a pilot and there is so much demand for pilots now after the hiatus in training post 9/11.

“It will be interesting to see what attitudes to female pilots are like. While women are still in the minority in engineering, I have never come up against any prejudice in the workplace; it’s outside the sector that preconceptions are making young women think twice about whether the industry is the right environment for them.”

So what would Debbie’s advice be to aspiring engineers thinking about going onto the profession?

“My advice would be: don’t let anything get in your way. I was concerned that having children would limit my career prospects but contracting has given me the flexibility to select projects that interest me and work around career breaks. I really hope that future generations will be inspired to work in engineering like I was because it offers such a dynamic and diverse career.”

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