Cynthia Bixby

I grew up in the shadow of Edwards Air Force Base in California, where looking up from the playground to watch an experimental aircraft streak across the sky was not uncommon. While I was fascinated by the space program and the pioneering aeronautics work happening next door, the idea of making a career in aerospace was never in the forefront of my mind.

In high school I was a good student but not a particularly enthusiastic one. In college, I chose to major in physics primarily for the challenge. While I was never a mathematics virtuoso, I enjoyed the last couple of years of my physics education where the math and the science came together to tell me something interesting about the physical world.

After graduating from University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, I looked for something to do and found a job with a small company providing support engineering for the United States Air Force at what was then the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards. I primarily did computer network development and maintenance work with a little bit of mathematical modeling.
Eighteen months later, I felt restless and answered a newspaper ad for database work. That job was with General Dynamics at the F-16 aircraft Combined Test Force (CTF) at Edwards. After a couple of months, I had built the database they had hired me to do plus a couple of other tasks so I thought I might be laid off. Instead the boss asked me if I wanted to be a flight test engineer. I was not really sure what that was or whether I was qualified, but I said yes and that led to a long adventure in learning all about aircraft flight test.

Over those years, I was in almost every department in the CTF to include instrumentation, data processing, flight test engineering and even scheduling. I planned flight tests and spent hundreds of hours in mission control rooms conducting developmental flight tests.

About six years into my adventure, Lockheed Martin bought General Dynamics, and I was transferred to what was then Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in Palmdale, California. While there, I worked on aircraft before they were even recognizable as aircraft and became skilled at integrating the various subsystems into one system. I did the planning and conducting of all the tests leading to first flight. I also worked on a handful of never-before-flown airframes and was fortunate to be involved in the integration and test of nearly every subsystem.

After six years of enjoying an all-work-all-the-time lifestyle, I was exhausted. I decided to leave the aviation profession and move somewhere beautiful. I chose one of my favorite places on the planet, Yosemite National Park, in California, and found a job that allowed me to live inside the park. It was a fantastic respite from the aerospace business, but about six months into it I began to worry about being able to sustain my lifestyle since I was only earning minimum wage. I started researching for work in aerospace again and found a job with a company that had the engineering support contract at what was then Dryden (now Armstrong) Flight Research Center located on Edwards Air Force Base.

When I first came to Armstrong, I expected I would only be at the center for a couple of years. But something about the place grew on me. The emphasis on work-life balance, the opportunity to use all that I had learned in industry about flight testing and integration, the small teams of people who worked hard every day to do something good – all of those things contributed to making me want to stay.

In 2006, I became a NASA civil servant. I bought a house and settled in for the long haul – no more six years and out for me. I spend my days helping really intelligent people make smart decisions and, occasionally, making a little aerospace history.

Photo of Cynthia Bixby

Biography

Cynthia (C.J.) Bixby is the chief of the Systems Engineering and Integration branch at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center, Edwards, California. Bixby supervises and advises both project chief and system engineers. She also works with other branch chiefs around Armstrong to ensure a healthy pipeline of engineering management candidates. Bixby’s personal drive is to support project and systems engineers set themselves up for success by tailoring systems engineering requirements for their particular project circumstances. Her efforts help make their work reliable and predictable. Prior to becoming chief, Bixby was the systems engineer for the Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge project, which researched whether use of flexible trailing edge wing flaps on a NASA Gulfstream were more efficient and reduce noise from takeoffs to landings. Earlier in her NASA career, she was acting deputy and then acting chief of the Flight Systems branch. She acted as chief systems engineer on the Unmanned Aerial Systems in the National Air Space, or UAS in the NAS, project, which is researching how to introduce drones into the NAS. She began her civil service career at NASA Armstrong in 2006 as a flight systems engineer and quickly became deputy lead engineer in the Flight Test Office. She was both deputy lead engineer and systems engineer lead for the Orion crew capsule pad abort test that was successfully performed in 2010. Prior to 2006, Bixby worked for Spiral, Inc., overseeing system integration and testing of a suite of hardware and software designed to enable research of intelligent flight control for a joint project with Air Force using its C-17 testbed aircraft. She also managed a flight demonstration team to evaluate collision avoidance systems necessary for the UAS NAS. After receiving her college degree, she was employed by Lockheed Martin, in Fort Worth, Texas, as a flight test engineer for the F-16 jet’s combined test force. She then transferred to the company’s Skunk Works in Palmdale, California, and was responsible for planning and executing flight tests on experimental aircraft. Bixby earned her Bachelor of Science in physics from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. Bixby has received numerous awards as contractor for Lockheed Martin as well as from NASA with peer awards for her work as a contractor engineer and as a NASA manager.