Re-building Helicopters, Building Careers | We Chat To Leonardo Aviation Repair and Design Engineer, Nicola Cole

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by Rebekah Valero-Lee on


“If I’d listened to my teachers at school, I might never have ended up in an engineering career,” says Nicola Cole, aviation repair and design engineer at Leonardo. “But being told at 14 that I wasn’t bright enough for a science-based career made me more determined to succeed in one and, 34 years after I started as an apprentice in the electrical design department of an aviation specialist, I still love my job and I’m still glad I made the choices I did.”

Nicola first decided that she wanted to be an engineer when she started spending her weekends tinkering with cars at the age of 12. O Levels in Physics and Chemistry put her on the path to an apprenticeship and, 18 months later, she made her first move as a contractor and has never looked back.

“Contracting has given me the flexibility to work on projects that interest me and work in different locations,” Nicola continues. “I worked in Canada for a while and currently I am working for the Leonardo Helicopter Division in Yeovil, where we’re repairing a military helicopter that suffered a heavy landing in the desert and rolled on its side.

“My job is all about finding solutions that will work, combining my experience and knowledge with the expertise in the team to bring the aircraft back into service. On this project, we’ve taken a helicopter that arrived in the workshop in five pieces and re-built it using parts from other aircraft, effectively creating a hybrid that will fly just as effectively as the original.”

Nicola was contracted at Leonardo specifically for the current helicopter repair project she’s involved with but can already see an opportunity to work on similar future projects with the company.

As is often the case, she is the only woman in both the office and the workshop, but being the only female member of the team doesn’t faze her. Indeed, she has seen big changes in terms of the number of female engineers rising through the ranks during the course of her career.

Nicola continues: “When I first started in the industry, women often weren’t taken seriously because there was an assumption that you would eventually leave the company to start a family. That just isn’t the case anymore and the job is so interesting and rewarding that women return to work and handle the challenges of juggling work and family because they enjoy their job and want to continue their career.

“There’s still more to be done to encourage increased diversity in the sector. Much of it is to do with misconceptions about what the job actually involves. A lot of young women considering a career like mine assume it will be very physically demanding whereas, in fact, it’s much more about problem solving and using your technical knowledge because all the lifting in the workshop is done by advanced machinery.”

While Nicola believes there needs to be more diversity in recruitment of engineers to the aviation sector, there has been no shortage of variety in her own career. In addition to providing her with opportunities to travel and work overseas, Nicola’s career has included contracts working on initial design of transmissions, mechanical systems, electrical systems, structures and many more areas of aircraft as well as repair and refurbishment, both rotary and fixed wing.

Over her 30+ year career, she has seen considerable change in the way that projects are delivered, with the hand-drawn hard copy engineering drawings she used in her early career making way for CADAM design technology, then 3D programs.

She explains: “New technology and systems are making the role much easier. It’s now virtually just one screen that shows me all the information needed to design parts in situ knowing the surrounding structure.”

More than three decades after Nicola first started her career, she still loves the challenge of her hands-on engineering role.

She adds: “I broke the mould of my girls’ grammar school by choosing a career path that wasn’t considered very ‘ladylike’ at the time. Thank goodness those stereotypes are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Hopefully, today’s increasingly diverse and inclusive outlook will enable more women to spend their days clambering on a helicopter and bringing five broken pieces back from the brink as a single serviceable aircraft like I do, because it’s such a challenging and fulfilling job.”

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