Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America
From Leadership Profile: Vertiflite March/April 2016
Dr. Catherine Kilmain, Vice President of Engineering, Bell Helicopter Textron
Overseeing about 1,400 engineers globally, Dr. Catherine Kilmain heads a dynamic rotorcraft organization charged with both research and development in the Bell XworX and traditional development in Bell production programs.
“The push that we had at XworX and the push that we’re having in our traditional engineering group is actually to broaden our engineers,” she observed. “Those who are part of an XworX core engineering team have a lot of cycles of learning, have a lot of experience, and are called on to do a lot of different things. That adds a lot of value in terms of knowledge that they can bring to the challenges that we face. That same kind of thinking is what we’re trying to push into the entire engineering organization to get them a little bit broader. Recognizing we still need some deep technical knowledge in some core areas, we’re trying to press to make sure people are really stretching and are growing themselves beyond one discipline.”
Like the rest of the rotorcraft industry, Bell is hungry for engineering talent. “I would say there is a gap that the industry faces in Double-Es [Electrical Engineers] and software engineers,” acknowledged Kilmain. “The competition for that capability with the Googles, the Amazons, and the internet Silicon Valley-type companies is strong. I think our industry knows that and is trying to figure out how to better publicize opportunities for those disciplines within the vertical lift industry. Personally, I think it’s more challenging and satisfying to create fly-by-wire software that helps a machine complete its mission than to write some software that’s just another search engine. We need to do a better job as an industry attracting that talent, showing what could be in our space for them.”
Through most of her school years around New Haven, Connecticut, Catherine Kilmain felt no attraction to aviation or engineering. “I liked math and science, and I originally wanted to be a heart surgeon for a very long time in high school until Top Gun came out. I went to see Top Gun, and that’s when I decided to become an aerospace engineer.” A high school guidance counselor pointed the curious senior to Syracuse University. “I chose engineering but didn’t know much about it. Syracuse has a full engineering program — I really enjoyed being there — but it also has a broader campus, so there are a lot of other disciplines. I chose a university so if engineering didn’t work out for me, there were other majors.”
Engineering studies at Syracuse worked out well, and Catherine (née Ferrie) Kilmain turned an aerospace engineering (AE) degree toward graduate studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology and unexpected rotary-wing career. “I didn’t even think of helicopters when I went to Georgia Tech,” she recalled. “I didn’t know they had a Rotorcraft Center of Excellence — that’s how ignorant I was. I wanted to get my Ph.D. because I thought I wanted to teach. I got interested in composites at Syracuse, and I went down to Georgia Tech to work on composites. There was a helicopter dynamics class taught by Dr. Hodges. I took the class, enjoyed it, and did well in it, but I still didn’t think about pursuing a career in rotorcraft.”
Doctoral preparations nevertheless coincided with a campus visit from Bell recruiters. “Dr. Jing Yen, who was the director of flight technology at the time here at Bell, set up interviews at the AE department. I signed up for an interview before I was finished with my degree — I didn’t want to be a five-, six-, seven-year Ph.D. student. I defended my thesis in early September and started work at the end of September 1997.”
Bell assigned the new engineer to the world’s first commercial tiltrotor. “I hired into the airframe stress group and I was put on the BA609 program,” said Dr. Kilmain. “It was my first time to understand the design and development process. It was when we were just kicking off the program, and just understanding how we do design, how we do iterations. How we got from concept to execution was very eye-opening for me.”
Tiltrotor work led to other advanced developments. “I stayed on 609 until 1999 and I went into the research organization. If you look at the charter of XworX today, it was XworX, but that’s not what we called it. I was brought in for my composite/fracture mechanics background, so we were looking at advanced materials, new layups for rotor heads and rotor blades. Some of that was cooperative research work for what was then NRTC/RITA [the National Rotorcraft Technology Center / Rotorcraft Industry Technology Association], now the VLC [Vertical Lift Consortium], on how we could partner together on damage tolerance.
“A lot of what we currently have in helicopter flaw tolerance requirements was a result of the input that the collective industry provided to the FAA. The work that we did at Bell — but actually for the industry on damage tolerance for certification — was rewarding. The ability to partner as an industry on ways and means to help influence what needed to be done for rotorcraft certification is a great model.”
Bell formally stood up its XworX in 2004. “We used to have a new product development center, a rapid prototyping center, and we married that execution piece with our Research and Development center, so what we’re calling XworX now supported the Model 429 rapid prototyping.” Dr. Kilmain became the manager of XworX in 2009 and, “Anything new in new-product test and development gets done under the XworX moniker.”
The rapid prototyping shop today provides a rapid response mechanism for the full range of Bell programs. “When something like a Model 525 or a 505 has a specific Statement of Work, as we execute the traditional engineering aspects, there are always development challenges. That’s when we reach out to the XworX team members, and they become part of those programs to help solve them and think a little non-traditionally. If there is some quick build to try out a modification, we call in that team to help.” Dr. Kilmain was named Vice President, XworX, Research and Development, Test and Evaluation in 2012.
“The current development programs like 525 and 505 are production programs that leverage the quick turnaround of some of our machining experts and build experts and the engineering team. On some things like a V-280, we call on our XworX engineering talent initially to help drive some of the new ways of thinking. There’s a lot of new technology and new capability in the V-280, so it’s a good blend of getting the right group of people together to get that done. I think the secret to solving a lot of difficult challenges is having many different perspectives in the room that can add to and challenge solutions versus having one voice.”
Simultaneous development programs at Bell — the commercial Model 505 Jet Ranger X light single- and Model 525 Relentless super medium twin-engine helicopters, and military Model V-280 Valor tiltrotor — advance the portfolio of Bell technologies. Dr. Kilmain explained, “Value proposition for the customer is our main focus and making sure we can meet whatever capabilities and needs they have at the most cost-friendly place. Those technologies and capabilities that feed into that value proposition are where we’re going to place our greatest emphasis. Safety, obviously, and being cognizant of the missions you need to meet and what you need to do for your customer are key.”
Dr. Kilmain offered, “I think tiltrotors have proven their value over and over again. The V-22 is hugely successful, and the V-280 is going to be extremely impressive to the US government and the world. We’ve got fly-by-wire in our 525 and V-280. There are a lot of benefits to that technology. Certainly, we’re looking at reducing noise, flying a little bit greener. I think autonomy is of interest to everybody, it seems, even Google. We’ve got the Fire Scout partnership with Northrop Grumman based on our Model 407. As we demonstrate more of our fly-by-wire capability, I think autonomy will definitely be a next leap.”
Fast-moving Bell teams use rapid prototyping tools, according to Dr. Kilmain. “We do use 3-D printing a lot. Sometimes, it’s just for fit-form-and-function, sometimes to fly, to demonstrate. What separates an XworX proof-of-concept from a development program is you don’t always weight-optimize. You don’t have to meet all of the certification requirements. It has to be airworthy, obviously, and safe, but you can do things a little bit differently than if you were going to release things for production. It’s a lot quicker in terms of engineering process tools, manufacturing tools that we can use to get to a solution that we can turn over to production.”
New developments demand more from Bell engineering, and the company has a multi-front recruiting campaign to cultivate new engineering talent. Dr. Kilmain explained, “We start with our [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] STEM events in the sixth- to eighth-grade just developing a passion for engineering. We do a lot with our Boot Camps where we recruit college sophomores and juniors to come in and go solve an engineering challenge that we have. From there, we have our college internship programs in the summer. It’s a mix, depending on our needs. We started our co-op program with undergrads who will be with us a full semester from different universities — Georgia Tech, Maryland, etc., and, locally, Texas universities. We can always use good engineers.”
Catherine Kilmain joined the AHS International in 2000, and in 2002 earned the AHS François-Xavier Bagnoud Award recognizing a member under the age of 30 who has made a significant contribution to the industry. In 2004, she received the Harry T. Jensen award for her rotorcraft damage tolerance work. A former member of the AHS Board of Directors, Dr. Kilmain remains involved with AHS International. “I think it builds a really close, tight-knit industry which can work for or against us,” she concluded. “I think it’s very positive where you can see the same people and have a place where you can talk about things that are common interests. It can also, if left as its own little island, create the same problem we have with the Double-Es and software engineers: We don’t get our message out how great rotorcraft and vertical lift are.”