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Northrop Grumman Australia

  • 50,000 - 100,000 employees

Bethany Lee

My favourite aspect of my current job is weight and balance. Previously, I have only worked on small planes in regards to this, so to try out my skills on an aircraft ten times bigger? Bring it on!

Where did you grow up and go to school? Have you travelled abroad?

I grew up in Canberra, Australia and went to school at Canberra Girls Grammar School, including school exchanges to Japan. I have travelled to America, Asia, the UK and Eastern Europe multiple times.

Can you talk us through some important milestones in your life?

My journey began at four years old when I proudly proclaimed to my family that I would be going to the moon. Even at four, I was pretty sure flying of some sort would be involved in my future. This led to most of my early childhood being spent jumping off the garden wall, the cubby house and eventually the garden shed, with all assortments of towels and umbrellas, in an attempt to gain my wings. 

My desire to be an astronaut was definitely the driving force of my academic life, and it was this passion that eventually led to my current career. I had a very keen interest in the STEM fields throughout school and I considered many career options along the way. At age 15 I joined the Royal Australian Air Force Cadets where I learnt all about the mechanics of flight. I received a scholarship for powered flight and was the first female at my squadron’s flight school in more than ten years.

Later on, in year 11, I was fortunate enough to be sponsored to attend the Honeywell Engineering Summer School where I was first introduced to engineering as a subject and was immediately intrigued. Engineering was all about how things worked, how they didn’t work and how I could make them work. It was practical, hands-on and all about problem-solving and being creative. It was this summer school that led to my decision to study engineering at university – and I soon discovered there was a whole engineering degree dedicated to aircraft. Perfect! The only other speciality I was considering was physics.

I studied a double degree in aerospace engineering and marine geology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Marine geology was a personal interest of mine after studying it at school.

The degree was certainly challenging, but great fun as well, especially the final year design course in which my team designed a hybrid crop sprayer. For my final thesis, The Aerodynamics of Tails in Larger Birds, I spent several weeks working with the Andean condors at Taronga Zoo.

How did you get to your current job position? 

I was fortunate enough to gain an internship with Hawker Pacific in Cairns in my final year of university, which is what first introduced me to design engineering in the way of repair and modification. During my internship, I was offered a full-time position as a design engineer. I was with Hawker Pacific for four and a half years before moving to Northrop Grumman in January 2019 as a structural and mechanical engineer. 

While I enjoyed my time with Hawker Pacific immensely, I was looking to further my career and also move more towards project management and airworthiness. Northrop Grumman offered both of these prospects, as well as working closely with defence, something I had also been interested in. It also provided the opportunity for career progression and specialisation.

I am still only at the beginning of my career, but already it has taken me far from home – all the way from Canberra to Cairns, and now to Brisbane!

How did you choose your specialisation?

There are endless different career paths within aviation and aerospace engineering, though in Australia the industry is still small. It was my Hawker Pacific internship that first introduced me to design engineering in the way of repair and modification. I really enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of this, as well as how familiar I had to become with aviation safety regulations and proving my design complied with each and every one.

During my time with Hawker Pacific, I gained my Weight Control Authority with both Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) and CASA Papua New Guinea, which allows me to weigh aircraft and design and approve their loading systems. Definitely a proud achievement for me and one of my favourite aspects of the job! Being a Weight Control Authority allows me to get up close and personal with an aircraft and really understand its limitations. It also means I have to be across any incorporated repairs/modifications to ensure they don’t negatively impact or overly restrict the aircraft’s performance. It’s definitely an area I want to continue to grow in. 

Moving to Northrop Grumman has exposed me to a whole new side of aviation – working with defence! It is quite a step up from general aviation, and even though sometimes learning new processes and timeframes can be frustrating, I am thoroughly enjoying it. I am still able to work in repair and modification design, but my eyes have been opened to other specialities I may pursue, such as learning how to maintain an aircraft throughout its life via continued airworthiness. I have also been able to continue my weight and balance work.

What was your interview process like? What kind of questions were you asked?

The interview for Northrop Grumman consisted of an informal phone conversation with the recruitment team to determine what I was looking for and whether Northrop Grumman might be suitable. Following this, I had a formal phone interview with my proposed supervisor, the Human Resources department and engineering team leads.

There were many questions about my previous experience, my understanding of what my new role would require (based on a job description I had been given) and my engineering knowledge. Questions also covered what I enjoyed doing outside of work and getting to know me as a person.

What does your employer do?

Northrop Grumman has a strong customer base in Australia and has been supporting a variety of defence and civil programmes here for more than 20 years. The company is proud of its established relationship with the Commonwealth of Australia and is committed to enhancing its business and geographic footprint in the country. 

What are your areas of responsibility?

I am responsible for maintaining the continued airworthiness of the KC-30A aircraft, which includes the day-to-day upkeep and incoming European Aviation Safety Agency directives. I compile Engineering Orders and Special Technical Instructions to incorporate various design changes into the structural aspects of the aircraft. I liaise with the Royal Australian Air Force, Commonwealth and the Department of Defence while carrying out these modifications. 

Can you describe a typical workday? What was the last thing you worked on?

A typical day for me starts around 7.30 am, going straight into the daily operations meeting. This pulls together people from the Department of Defence and Northrop Grumman to review aircraft status and deal with any issues for that day. I take this report back to my team (I’m in the Airframe team) and we assign work and projects as required.

The rest of my day varies from reading and reviewing incoming technical information from the aircraft manufacturer and the European Aviation Safety Agency to producing Engineering Orders and Special Technical Instructions to carry out the repair, maintenance or upgrade work on the aircraft.

Another common activity is to liaise with different teams, including those from the Department of Defence and the Commonwealth, about projects, issues and general administration duties. 

What are the career prospects with your job? Where could you or others in your position go from here? 

There are so many places you can go in aircraft engineering, from a maintenance engineer to a design engineer to a project manager! I could further my career in technical support and get into the nitty-gritty math and physics of aircraft repair and design; I could move into airworthiness and maintain the constant upgrades needed to extend an aircraft’s life; I could become a project manager, a field services representative, a technical support officer; or go back to design engineering. There are too many prospects to name!

What would your career be if you weren’t doing what you’re doing now? 

It’s hard to imagine not working in engineering, and right now I feel like I’ve landed my dream job. If I remain in engineering there still is the dream of one day working with NASA.

If I didn’t have engineering, I think it would be nice to pursue my other degree in marine geology and look at coastal preservation.

I am also heavily involved with the community with SIDS & Kids, National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN) and the State Emergency Service (SES). It would be great to explore working in these areas in the future.

What do you love most about your job? What kind of tasks do you enjoy the most? 

My favourite aspect of my current job is weight and balance. Previously, I have only worked on small planes in regards to this, so to try out my skills on an aircraft ten times bigger? Bring it on!

I also really enjoy learning about continued airworthiness — how upgrades are constantly implemented and monitored to ensure we get the best life out of our aircraft. I’d like to progress further in this area. 

Do you have to work on weekends? Are stress levels high? Are there any other limitations?

My job can involve late hours and weekend work but this isn’t often. There is also an on-call roster so any urgent and unexpected issues can be dealt with.

At my current level, the stress isn’t high, but it will likely increase as my responsibilities increase. Sometimes it can be difficult dealing with so many stakeholders in a project, to ensure everyone has the same understanding of an issue and that everyone’s needs are being met.

Things are different in every job and it also depends on you as a person. Personally, I love a challenge and sometimes that little bit of stress can bring out the best in you! 

Which three pieces of advice would you give to a current university student?

  • If you’re thinking of studying engineering, be sure to keep up your science and maths subjects at school as these are requirements for almost all engineering degrees. The problem-solving skills you learn in these subjects will be your greatest tools. 
  • Not every class is easy, not every class you will enjoy and at times this will make you tired, stressed and upset, and make you want to give it all up and pick something easier. To get through you need passion. Whatever it is you are working towards, passion is your fuel and fuel keeps you going.
  • Goals move and change. Don’t be afraid of changing your mind, changing your direction and changing your world. Step forward, step up and hold your ground.