AFTC honors Women's History Month: interview with Dr. Eileen Bjorkman

  • Published
  • By Tiffany Holloway
  • Air Force Test Center Public Affairs

March is Women’s History Month. Join us in commemorating and encouraging the study, observance and celebration of the vital role of women in American history. We highlight Air Force Test Center executive director, SES Dr. Eileen Bjorkman during a question and answer session with Tiffany Holloway, AFTC public affairs director.

Holloway: To get to know you better, I did some digging around. I see that you pursued computer science and aeronautical engineering as majors. Did you always know what you wanted to be as a child? Why did you join the Air Force? I remember we shared that we were both military brats. Did that impact your decision to join the Air Force?

Bjorkman: I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was growing up. I graduated from high school in 1974, before women were allowed to go to the service academies. I wasn’t interested in the military anyway, since there were still very few opportunities in the military for women. I initially majored in engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle because I was good at math, but switched to computer science after the first two years. I worked for a year and then realized I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life programming computers. I saw an ad that the Air Force was interviewing for officers on the UW campus and thought I would just stop by to talk to them. I was obviously aware of the Air Force because my dad had retired in 1974 as a lieutenant colonel. And in the six years since I graduated from high school, women had a lot more opportunities. I wouldn’t say my decision to join was well thought out. It was more like, let’s give this a try and see what happens.

Holloway: Sounds like a typical college student story. Trying to figure things out. I read your bio. You have had an impressive career being a flight test engineer, an instructor and a test squadron commander. Can you tell me what led you to these positions? What did you learned about yourself?  What challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

Bjorkman: I hadn’t been all that interested in airplanes before I joined the Air Force, but that changed afterwards. My eyes were too poor to go to pilot training, but I thought I might be able to go to navigator training. But, the Air Force was short on engineers in the early 1980s, so they sent me to Air Force Institute of Technology to get a second bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering. While I was at AFIT I met a lieutenant who told me about being a flight test engineer at Holloman AFB and about going to Test Pilot School as an engineer. If I went this route, I could fly in the backseat of fighters, which sounded exciting! Going the navigator route, I would have only been able to fly in cargo aircraft or tankers, since women were still excluded from combat aircraft at that time. So, I managed to get a job at Holloman after I graduated from AFIT and from there got selected for TPS. The other assignments all built on that first assignment at Holloman – it really set me on the right path. The squadron commander job was a bit of a surprise. I had gone to the Pentagon after Air Command and Staff College and was thinking about what to do next.  One of my TPS classmates put me in contact with the (at the time) 46th Test Group commander back at Holloman. And he hired me! I think the biggest challenges I overcame at least early in my career were related more to the lack of a well-defined career path for flight test engineers at the time rather than any challenges I had as a woman. I hope I blazed some paths not just for women but for flight test engineers in general.

Holloway: Wow! One thing really led to another. This is so fascinating. Okay, it’s time to pick your brain. Let’s get into some advice. Being in a male dominated field, what advice do you give up and coming female Airmen and Guardians?

Bjorkman: Be yourself and don’t feel like you have to be “one of the guys” to be part of the team. Show up, contribute and be competent and confident and people will respect you. There will always be a few people who will denigrate you or minimize you just because you are a woman, but don’t let them bother you. If someone like that tries to throw up a roadblock, find a way around them. And don’t be afraid to ask others for help. There were several times in my career where other people helped me get out of a bad or less than ideal situation.

Holloway: What would you say to anyone who aspires to go into a STEM career field?

Bjorkman: Obviously, take math and science classes as early as you can, but I would also encourage people to get involved with robotics, model airplanes, or anything that requires you to think about mechanical things, solve problems and think in three dimensions. I took several math and science courses in high school, but I didn’t have access to other things like rocketry and I think it hurt me a bit in some of my early engineering classes. I also encourage people to read, read, read! There are tons of good books about math and science but it’s also important to understand history, literature, philosophy and other fields. Communication is a huge part of STEM, but we often focus so much on the technical side of STEM that we forget about the soft side.

Holloway: Thanks for pointing out that communication is key too.  As we approach this year’s high school graduating class, can you tell me more about STEM careers and degrees that they can pursue?

Bjorkman: If you’re interested in a STEM career, I think just about any STEM degree is a great way to start, whether that’s math, physical sciences, or engineering. Some areas require specialized degrees, but being a mathematician, scientist or engineer is more about a way of thinking about problems versus a specific degree in say, aeronautical engineering versus electrical engineering. Plus, you can almost always choose to do a master’s degree in a different area than your undergraduate studies. Certificate programs are also becoming a popular way to expand your knowledge base without the commitment of a full degree. Having said all of that, you have to become a lifelong learner. Read and take classes when they’re offered. Join a professional society (or two or three) to stay up on the latest things happening in areas that interest you. And, don’t be afraid to branch out into other areas. I have a sister who got a PhD in astronomy, but she works in software development and has worked for multiple companies in Silicon Valley. I wasn’t in the least bit interested in modeling and simulation until I had a job at the Pentagon as a combat analyst, and that set me off in a whole new direction. So, be open minded and never stop learning!

Holloway: I’m a believer. Stay flexible. Opportunities are out there. You’re so humble. Just by your personality and background, I know you’ve made some contributions within TEST. Can you let me know what they were?

Bjorkman: I designed and installed the first computer network here at Edwards in 1988. At this point, I was an instructor at TPS and the commandant thought we should have a network. We weren’t really sure what that meant, but I gathered some catalogs and figured out what we needed to buy. An NCO that worked for me worked a deal with an NCO at the communications squadron and they came over and laid down the cable for us. We bought some new computers and laser printers and somehow got everything working even though we really didn’t know what we were doing. Another great experience was when I was sitting in the control room monitoring a strip chart during the first flight of the C-17 from Long Beach to here in 1991. The prep work for all that was pretty intense and it was a great learning experience. Something that people might not know is, I did my master’s thesis on pilot-induced oscillations and collected some data while I was going through TPS. I figured the thesis would just sit on a shelf but a few years later some aircraft had some PIO problems and all of a sudden everyone was calling me about my thesis. I still occasionally get calls or emails about it and an engineer at Boeing told me he keeps it on his shelf of books at work.

Holloway: Wow, what a career! These are great contributions. Before I arrived here, I read an article about the ribbon cutting ceremony of the museum here at Edwards AFB. You were instrumental in standing up the Museum on Base. Why was it so important to have such a Museum?

Bjorkman: I wouldn’t say I was instrumental. I donated some money to maintain the RF-4C aircraft they have at the museum. The F-4 was my favorite airplane to fly in while stationed at Edwards. I had a couple of flights in that particular tail number. I think it’s very important to preserve our heritage as part of the overall heritage of the Air Force. After all, many of the “firsts” in the Air Force all happened here at Edwards or at other AFTC organizations! Breaking the sound barrier is the one that most people remember, but there have been many first flights of aircraft here, along with dozens, maybe hundreds of speed and altitude records, that sort of thing. To really appreciate and understand our technology today, we need to remember where we came from and the people who made that all happen.

Holloway: Thank you Ma’am! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. I know our readers have learned a lot about you. I’m definitely inspired. Finally, I would like to encourage everyone to take time to learn more about women’s contributions to history, culture and society, especially this month.