How Christina Engh’s military career helped prepare her for co-owning a UAS consulting firm
Tell us about yourself and your background.
I refer to myself as a small town girl from Wyoming. I grew up in Colorado, Wyoming and California, so my background is extremely diversified, from San Francisco to Glenrock. Doesn’t get much more diverse than that! I originally went to college to be a foreign war correspondent. Little did I know that one day I’d be actually in a war.
The military opportunity presented itself during my time in college. I wanted to pay for my own college, and just see what the military was about. It was the absolute best decision of my life. My job in the Navy was in a field just opened to women, and eventually I became the first female straight out of boot camp to attend one of the schools. At one point I was the only female with about 300 males in school. I was 19 years old and couldn’t understand why so many men were upset about me being in that school. Fortunately, the younger guys had my back and that’s when I learned you can’t be a feminist surrounded by only women. That mentality really helped me through Army flight school and deploying to Iraq, and eventually earning my Pilot-in-Command. However, over the years, it has been females that are on the other end of the phone when I need support during those bad days. There’s a sisterhood that we have that is important as well, and we have to understand its importance to our sanity.
How did you get started in the drone industry?
I got involved with aviation as an Air National Guard Weather Forecaster. The pilots I was forecasting for kept telling me I should apply to flight school, and since I wasn’t getting any younger, I jumped in with both feet by finding a unit that was slated to deploy to Iraq as soon as I graduated flight school. In 2005-07 I deployed to Iraq with the Virginia Army National Guard under MAG-16. The Marine Corps needed an aviation asset and we accepted that assignment. After that, I deployed in support of Operation Jump Start on the southern border of Arizona. Once that wound down, I noticed our unmanned aircraft platoon could use some aviation leadership and took up that role with the Florida Army National Guard. My Virginia brethren heard about this and called to ask if I would essentially lead them into Iraq. We went to Afghanistan instead and I found myself quickly going from a Platoon Leader to a UAS Brigade Advisor. That set the stage for my job at the FAA in the UAS Integration Office and now co-owning my own UAS consulting firm.
Tell us about your organization and your role there.
I’m the COO of a boutique aviation consulting firm. My main role is the first call, marketing, and really the face of the company. I’m the first person most people meet or talk with when contacting our firm, so it’s really important that I’m always available on my phone, and that when I answer I always have to be cheerful. I try really hard not to let my phone go to voicemail! Because of this, I have to be truly up to date on rules, regulations and brainstorming ways of utilizing this technology for our clients. We are strong in the Commercial Space industry as well, which is a unique place these days. No one really discusses that industry within the drone community.
How has your extensive military career experience prepared you for your current work?
I had to fight to become a Pilot-in-Command, and you realize it’s not going to be given to you on a silver platter because you are a female. You have to earn it, but with grace and dignity. When you are the first to do something, you are setting the stage for all those that come after you, and that’s a huge burden. I cried. A lot. Wanting to scream or yell or be frustrated in front of Instructor Pilots or others PICs was just not acceptable. Keeping that composure under extremely difficult situations made me appreciate becoming a PIC more than anything else, and prepared me for realizing that there isn’t anything I can’t do. You just have to surround yourself with a tremendous support crew. There was a guy, Frank Northrop, and he was my big teddy bear in Iraq when I just didn’t think I could do it one more time. He was old, cranky, and we yelled at each other, A LOT. And my roommate in Iraq, Angela Rhea. She is my bestie running partner to this day. We cry every time we see one another. It’s our one time to be graceful in other ways. But the military taught me about teamwork, and not having to do everything by yourself. I have a great support system now filled with people from the military and civilian side. Surround yourself with greatness, but have those people you can ask your “stupid” questions.
What do you like most about being in the UAV industry?
The fact that it is constantly changing. I learn something new every day, and have to brainstorm ideas, or create programs that have never been created.
What’s your favorite type of project and why?
One that presents a unique set of challenges that we get to be creative to work through. I also like projects where we get paid. Seriously!
Do you have a success story you would like to share
Early on I was nervous about calling companies and pitching them our company’s capabilities. There was one company, HSE-UAV. They just seemed like they had their stuff together. I had my heart set on working with them. Finally, I called. We clicked instantly. But then something happened and we went months without talking. It was early on in our company and it was a real disappointment. There’s a point where you pick up that phone and make that follow up call, even with the possibility of being rejected. They are our biggest client today and I even sleep on their couch when out in Portland. This is about building teams. And they are my team, and now my friends and extended family. We don’t call, we facetime.
What excites you most about the potential for women in the industry?
When I look around in UAS, we are way more than 10%, which is about the industry average for manned aviation. The potential for women in this industry is the same as for men, but we finally have a bunch of us. Men are used to being around a bunch of men. Women are used to having to figure out how to fit into a man’s world. We finally have a place where it hasn’t been dominated by men for decades. We are here on equal footing. I hope that there is also greater potential for women going over to the manned side, too, because there is just something so thrilling about flying a plane with other women. It’s just cool. My first all-female flight was probably the coolest experience ever. For men, they have other men in the cockpit from the get-go. It took me almost 6 years before I had another female in the cockpit with me, and its something you never forget.
What You’ve Learned:
What has been your most significant “lightbulb” moment since you entered the industry?
There are so many! But the real one was when I was at a UAS conference and saw so many Blackhawk Pilots I had gone to school with getting into the industry. I knew something was changing in aviation.
What have you learned you wish you had known when you got started?
Get all of the paperwork for starting a business done the first week, apply for your 8(a), etc because once the business starts, you don’t have time for writing business plans and figuring out if you should be an LLC, Corp, etc. Once the business starts, you have to focus on clients.
Is there a tip you learned you would like to share with other women in the industry?
I know that other women have been discriminated against in this industry, but I’ve been lucky to have not seen that side. So my advice is probably biased towards my own perceptions, but I’d have to say that if you don’t single yourself out or ask to be treated any different, the men in this industry don’t think of us as different. So, just be yourself. Don’t worry about some gender barrier that you are trying to chase down. If you are true to yourself, and true to others, you will get recognized. Especially since there are so many women in senior leadership positions in this industry.
What suggestions do you have for anyone studying for the Remote Pilot Certificate test?
Study. And don’t just memorize the concepts. Understand the concepts as to how they apply to your real life-flights.
What’s the best way for W&D readers to connect with you?
The Final Word:
Is there anything else you would like to share with the Women and Drones Community?
Sit at the table. When you walk into a meeting, don’t take the chair along the wall. Sit in the front row, sit at the table. You deserve it just like everyone else. Also, bring your story and experiences. If we are building, manufacturing, designing, and creating a world for the women of tomorrow, then we need to use our experiences to make that a world for women to be a part of…when a women goes to Best Buy to buy a drone, it needs to be built, created, and designed for her and her daughter or mother or sister, not just her brother, father or son. We, as women, sit in positions to make that change happen.