Kathleen Howell

The potpourri of childhood and past experiences really does all add up to the present!

My mother was a teacher, and my father was an aeronautical engineer. Growing up in Southern California, airplanes were everywhere. I loved to tune the world out and absorb the grace of the aircraft in flight.

For my eighth birthday, I was given ballet classes that ultimately were a lifelong gift. Ballet definitely fit quite nicely into my predisposition for structure and discipline. At school, I enjoyed and excelled at mathematics. In junior high school I orchestrated my placement into the accelerated math classes. High school brought my future husband and an introduction to the wonders of flying small general aviation aircraft. I imagined myself, among other things, as an astronaut, a dancer, a wife and mother but never a NASA software test engineer, flight operations engineer or an aerobatic pilot.

Before choosing a major in college, I wrote to NASA, inquiring about the qualifications to become an astronaut. I earned a degree in mathematics partly because it met the science degree qualification. As it turns out, a math degree can be extremely flexible allowing many options.

After completing my degree, I began my first permanent — and most important — calling as a mother. When my children were young, we moved to the Antelope Valley area of Southern California where NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center was located. I was fortunate to occasionally observe the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and the space shuttle prototype Enterprise conducting flight tests overhead. And on one particularly moving Independence Day, with the family on Rogers Dry Lake, we witnessed one of what would become several space shuttle landings. With three children and a pilot husband comprising my family, additional aviation influences became inevitable. Airplanes were an integral part of my life!

I should have read the writing on the wall by the time the children had grown. Yet I was still clueless with respect to a next career choice. I took the opportunity to exercise the flexibility of the math degree and taught elementary school, followed by junior high and high school for several years, then decided to pursue a position developing software. Again, the math degree was invaluable.

It was my good fortune that positions for software engineers were open at NASA Dryden. The prospect of working at NASA was most exciting. I was hired initially as a contractor supporting the Dryden mission control rooms, and a short year later I was a software test engineer and became a NASA civil servant. I remember clearly the first day I arrived at Dryden as an employee. Coming over the ridge, seeing the vastness of the Mojave Desert with NASA Dryden and many of its aircraft laid out along the shore of Rogers Dry Lake was an exhilarating and proud moment. The “I cannot believe I work here at NASA” experience has not diminished over the years.

My Dryden experiences coupled with my husband’s purchase of an airplane elevated my interest in becoming a pilot. With the help of a fellow NASA employee who was a pilot, I became a private pilot and then earned my commercial pilot’s license with an instrument rating. Before the ink was dry on my private pilot certificate, I was part owner of three aircraft, one used for aerobatic flight. My grandchildren were calling me “Grandma Airplane!”

With my newly acquired piloting skills plus my long-overdue realization that I loved airplanes, I found myself restless with software testing. I had been a software test engineer for nearly 10 years and was ready to reinvent myself. A NASA career counselor gave me the insight and encouragement I needed to pursue a change to a hands-on airplanes career. I felt it would be an honor and a privilege to work with NASA aircraft. Truly, the biggest roadblock was that I under-valued the importance of my past experiences.

The career counselor quickly helped adjust my attitude. NASA Dryden had many planes and the best place for me to start was the Operations Engineering Branch. I submitted my resume, and Dryden gave me the opportunity to work directly with the planes.

As an operations engineer for the Ikhana Unmanned Aerial System, my responsibilities are to coordinate and facilitate its maintenance, modifications, and mission planning for the aircraft, a modified Predator B. I also coordinate approval with the Federal Aviation Administration to fly in the National Airspace System, perform route and flight planning, and act as mission director. Recently, I had a brief opportunity to remotely pilot Ikhana. The experience provided me a deeper understanding of the aerospace field since I was piloting an aircraft from a cockpit on the ground instead of from the air. Occasionally I work with Dryden’s Global Hawk unpiloted aircraft as well as other small remotely piloted projects.

My move to operations engineering also impacted my personal flying interests. A professional contact became a friend and aerobatic mentor. The thrill I had experienced during introductory aerobatic flights and my thoughts to compete coalesced into, in the words of my husband, “an obsession.” Many parallels can be drawn between dance, which requires discipline through precision control of your body and a great deal of practice, and aerobatic aircraft competition. I have continued to dance throughout my life for the joy of dancing itself and its physical conditioning of my body to be an aerobatic pilot. I have been flying about 200 hours a year, practicing and attending competitions in the western United States with an occasional journey to Texas for the National Aerobatic Championships. I placed first in the Southwest twice in the last four years!

The experiences of my life are most definitely beyond what I had imagined when I was young. I imagined I would have a family and later a career working with software. I never thought I would have a career at NASA, nor did I imagine working with airplanes. I certainly never dreamed of being an aerobatic pilot. I don’t know which of my ever-expanding experiences will be woven into my future interests, but I’m certainly curious to find out!


The daughter of an educator and an aeronautical engineer, Kathleen Howell grew up in southern California with varied influences, among them interests in dance, mathematics and aviation. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics from California State University at Northridge. Ms. Howell raised three children and taught mathematics in elementary and secondary schools prior to accepting a position at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif. As a flight operations engineer, Ms. Howell’s responsibilities include coordination and facilitation of missions involving the Ikhana unmanned aircraft system, a civil version of the Predator B aircraft. She has been a member of the Ikhana project team since January 2007. Prior to her current assignment, Ms. Howell was a software test manager from July 2001 until December 2006. In this position, she managed test processes for the Dryden Mission Control Center data acquisition and display systems. Ms. Howell also served as a test information engineer, a technical liaison between flight projects and the Western Aeronautical Test Range. She coordinated development of radar, communication and telemetry data delivery systems in support of research projects including the Active Aeroelastic Wing, Quiet Spike, and the Shaped Sonic Boom Demonstration. Her Dryden civil service career began in 1998 as a software test engineer. She was responsible for designing and executing unit through acceptance-stage test processes for the Dryden Mission Control Center. In her spare time, Ms. Howell holds true to being the daughter of an aeronautical engineer and an avid NASA fan as she holds a Commercial Pilots Certificate with instrument rating. Ms. Howell is a competitive aerobatic pilot, showing us all it is possible to be rightside up when everything looks upside down.