Katie Esker - Representing the Future of Aerospace Written 15 June 2017

by Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications (2008-2017)

Katie Esker

While most of the faces in the crowd at the recently held 2017 AIAA AVIATION Forum belonged to professional engineers and college students majoring in aerospace disciplines, one belonged to the event’s youngest attendee, 16-year-old Katie Esker, a rising junior at Central Florida Aerospace Academy (CFAA) in Lakeland, Florida. Esker attended the forum with her aunt Barbara Esker, a deputy program director with NASA Aeronautics, and with the help of Dr. Richard Wahls, strategic technical advisor, Advanced Air Vehicles Program at NASA Aeronautics, and was using the week to learn a little more about aerospace and to network with the women and men who make up our multinational community. I was able to sit down with Esker and talk with her about her interests in aerospace engineering and some of the things she’s been doing while in high school to prepare for her college studies and eventual professional career.

I asked Esker what sparked her interest in engineering. Esker relayed that her engineering class at CFAA was a primary spark for her interest in aerospace. She described how the class demands work on “tight deadlines” and the teacher, Mr. Joel Bresler, “asks a lot of hard questions, which really put you on the spot,” but she felt that this process has really helped her to learn how to think on her feet. Bresler challenges his students with a variety of projects that test their design, engineering, and manufacturing skills.

Among Esker’s favorites was a project that required the construction of simple machines to move two rolls of pennies from the floor, onto a table top, and then from the table top into a box. Students had one-and-half weeks to plan, build, and execute their designs. Esker's group, which was all female, turned in the most unique design, utilizing a wheel-and-axle design rather than the pulley-based designs of other teams. Bresler also challenged Esker’s class to build a working trebuchet, or medieval siege weapon. Esker’s group designed and built one that worked with different weights and maintained a 71.43% accuracy rate when the group used it to fling mini-marshmallows at a target. Through the class, Esker has also gained experienced with Autodesk 3-D design software, allowing her to gain practical experience creating and printing 3-D designs, which will be invaluable to the future of aerospace design and manufacturing.

When not working on class projects, Esker devotes a lot of her after-school time to working on the construction of a Sonex Motor Glider through the facilities of the Lakeland Aero Club. Esker reported that they are learning all aspects of aircraft construction through this project, including the actual bending and shaping of sheet metal and other aircraft components – giving her and her colleagues hands-on experience in aircraft design and construction, experiences that will set them apart from their peers. The club also has some restoration projects that include two 1939 Taylorcraft planes and a Schweizer 2-22 glider that students work on as well. The students fly the completed aircraft themselves, including Piper Cubs that aid in flight training and are maintained by the members.

When I asked Esker about her most amazing experience thus far, she talked about travelling with fellow student Sean Stoltz to Austin, Texas, to spend time at Redbird Flight Simulations to construct a full-range-of-motion flight simulator and to become certified technicians on the equipment, becoming the youngest people to earn that designation at 15 years of age. Esker and Stoltz then had the simulator shipped to Lakeland, Florida, during Sun 'N Fun, an international fly-in, where they completed assembly of the simulator with a team of friends in just two days. The unit was 9’ X 11’ and needed a space 16’ X 16’ to function in. This experience taught Esker and Stoltz how to work under tight deadlines, and is one of Esker’s favorite memories thus far in her budding aerospace career.

When not building airplanes, solving impossible sounding design problems, or becoming a certified flight simulator technician, Esker finds herself taking time to enjoy writing and ballet, with her aunt reporting that she is an “accomplished ballerina.” Esker also spends time drawing, and particularly likes to draw faces, reporting that she inherited her artistic ability from her father “who is an artist.” All of these activities also contribute to her aerospace aspirations, with Esker stating: “Writing helps me to process and understand things, as well as allows me to express myself,” a very valuable skill for a future engineer. Ballet, she added, “keeps me on my toes – no pun intended – and teaches me to link sequences together, learn new things very quickly, and keep up with others.” She also reports that the work she is doing in her engineering class is helping her hone her presentation and public speaking skills, which will be very important to her future career success.

Esker spoke about her involvement with the student section of the Women in Aviation organization at her school, and how it has helped her to learn more about our community, while also allowing her to interact with like-minded young women who are also pursuing aerospace careers. Through the auspices of the club, Esker was able to take part in the Women in Aviation conference in Orlando, Florida, where she met women professionals and explored the career choices of the aerospace field in depth. Esker said the club helps encourage the female students at her school to hang in there and stick with aerospace because “we don’t have a good ratio of women to men,” which prompted her aunt to say “yet.” Esker highlighted the value of organizations like Women in Aviation and how they provide spaces for young women to learn about aerospace in a mutually supportive and encouraging environment.

We talked about what advice Esker might have for young people looking to move into aerospace. She said, “Take every opportunity you have to talk to people and learn, and soak all of that knowledge in.” She encouraged adults to “reach out to kids, talk to them directly about aerospace, and invite them to events to help them learn.” She felt that one of the keys to getting more kids involved in aerospace was by forming direct connections between those in the field and the kids who want to be part of it. We closed our discussion by talking about AIAA. Esker is a student member, and reports that she really likes the opportunities to attend AIAA events, like the AVIATION Forum, and she really likes the Daily Launch and all of the articles it provides her with each morning. She said that she’s found all of the AIAA members that she’s talked with to be very nice individuals who have been very helpful to her in figuring out what she might want to do in aerospace.

The future of aerospace belongs to students like Katie Esker, and we should do all we can to help her, and her colleagues, along the way to becoming professional members of our community. By reaching out and making a connection, you are helping put our community on a firm foundation for the future.