Aviation for Women

SEP-OCT 2018

Aviation for Women is the flagship member publication of Women in Aviation International. Articles feature women who have made aviation history, professional development ideas, and current-topic articles.

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S E P T E M B E R / O C T O B E R 2 0 1 8 AviationforWomen 37 (left) Elsa Hennings demonstrates the internal rigging compartments of a parachute pack at China Lake, California. (below) Elsa, right, and colleague Rob Sinclair take a break from in- stalling parachutes that she engineered for use on the Orion spacecraft. Just to make things interesting, each material degrades at a different rate depending on the environment. This is a factor in determining the in- spection and repack cycle. "Navy chutes are subject to wide temperature swings," Elsa says. "We qualify for -65°F to 165°F, but they can get hot- ter than that in a closed cockpit." And let's not forget that fresh salt air. To give a bailout system (used in aircraft not equipped with ejection seats) a longer service life, the parachutes are "barometrically sealed—vacuum- bagged with aluminized plastic—because air oxidizes the materials over time," she says. The rewards of her work are many, and relative. Orion has been reward- ing because the talented people she's working with include "several past Knacke winners, and that's just eye-opening to work with really top-notch, supportive folks." But nothing surpasses the man who introduced himself after a presentation about China Lake's parachute work. This was several years after a crew used her bailout system in 2010 to escape a burning E-2 Hawkeye somewhere in the Middle East. "We wanted to talk to them for the user's perspective, but that didn't happen," Elsa says, adding, "We don't often get feedback." The emotional aviator thanked Elsa after her presentation. "I said, no problem," she says. "I give presentations all the time. No, he said, I want to thank you for saving my life. He was one of the pilots who bailed out of that burning E-2. That one moment made my whole career." Sometimes the rewards are an unexpected outcome. Working with the Navy Safety Center and a team of engineers and aviators on an in-depth analysis of naval aviation mishaps, instead of increasing ejection survivabil- ity, "we came up with ANGEL, Active Network Guidance and Emergency Logic," Elsa adds. "It's a software system that pulls together all of the other subsystems that help prevent the airplane from crashing" when task saturation causes an aviator to lose situational awareness, she says. "It was an interesting pro- gram because it was avionics, and we ended up getting a patent [she now has 10] for it back in the day." This was also the subject of Elsa's first book, Mis- hap Data Evaluation of Current Naval Aircraft 1987-1996. Her second book, NASA CPAS Drogue Textile Riser Feasibility Study, led NASA to replace the 1.25-inch diameter steel risers in Orion's Capsule Para- chute Assembly System. When bent into their packed positions, the steel ris- ers don't want to stay where you put them, and they possess a lot of stored energy that could damage the capsule's exterior if a retention strap broke. "Textile risers are happy to be folded, stuffed, and mashed," Elsa says. NASA got interested when they learned that the change would save more than 100 pounds. "With spacecraft, weight changes are usually measured in ounces." It's been "a long time" since Elsa invested her free time in skydiving. Now it's dedicated to her family, her three daughters, education, landscaping her home in China Lake, which often involves a Bobcat or backhoe, and work- ing with Rotary and the China Lake Museum of Armament and Technology. In 2001, she worked with parents to establish the Ridgecrest Charter School, and she continues as the longtime judge at the annual student science fair. Elsa promotes her aeronautical interests as opportunities arise, like last year's Girls in Aviation Day held by the WAI San Diego Chapter. Since 2002, once a year, Elsa volunteers with 15 to 20 other female engineers, scientists, and doctors on a Saturday morning to meet with girls from the surrounding area for a half-day of "Expand Your Horizon workshops to show them what we do," Elsa says. ✈ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . An aviation journalist since 1989, Scott M. Spangler lives outside of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and writes about the many facets of aviation. "Right now I'm working on a JPL parachute system where we're at Mars' relative altitude. There's just not much there, and that changes everything." U.S. NAV Y PHOTO NASA PHOTO

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