EDWARDS AFB, Calif. — Girls from elementary, middle and high schools possibly unaware of the heroic contributions made by women in the advancement of aeronautics, have a new best friend and role model who lives just around the Aerospace Valley corner.
Jessica Peterson, a civilian flight test engineer and 412th Operations Group Technical Director, is taking on increasingly prominent roles as the face and voice encouraging and advocating to and for young women the nation needs in all aspects of aerospace activity.
Answering to call-sign “Sting,” and generally appearing in a flight suit she wears in the backseat or right-hand seat of whatever aircraft she’s evaluating, the lady projects serious professionalism.
Quoted as saying, “As a local, I’m passionate about reaching out to our community. The early exposure I got to engineering in middle school and high school still influences my career today.”
Having addressed more than 250 students at Antelope Valley College in 2022, Peterson recalled that she, like them, “was a local kid who went to Quartz Hill Elementary, Joe Walker Middle School and Quartz Hill High, and never dreamed back then of becoming a flight test engineer who flew at twice the speed of sound and at altitudes 9 /12 miles above ground level.”
No, she didn’t start out to be an engineer. She first thought of becoming a patents attorney, but an internship in a law office changed her mind. Drawn to mechanical engineering, she earned a BS degree at Cal Poly University San Luis Obispo, and a MS degree from the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey. A civilian employee of the Defense Department, she wasn’t in the Air Force. She well remembers her first flight in 2014, “and I was airsick.”
She later learned to fly in civil aviation. Peterson says a big obstacle to be overcome in encouraging young women to pursue career studies in aerospace and technologies are lingering fears about gender barriers and prejudices, most of which no longer exist. Belief in your capabilities is the key to success for young women in pursuing an aerospace career, she advises. She says the need for young women in aerospace careers clearly outweighs any obstacles.
Although dedicated to student outreach as a personal mission, Jessica “Sting” Peterson’s roles and activities grew more numerous and formal in the post-COVID year public comeback of 2022-23 as Edwards AFB presented the largest Science, Technology, Engineering & Math Show in history, and special presentations and events for all during the four-day return of the Edwards Flight Test Center Air Show and Open House.
Leading up to the long week of activity, Peterson’s history of connecting to schools brought her aboard the base Public Affairs team activities, including planning and coordination of a special STEM flyover of six regional schools. Peterson was quoted as saying, “I reached out to schools to provide in-person presentations on Flight Test and Engineering. The goal was to connect students to the airplanes and aircrew they saw at the STEM outreach flyover and airshow.”
The flyover route reached the California communities of Edwards, Boron, Helendale, Victorville, Hesperia, El Mirage, Lake Los Angeles, Palmdale, Quartz Hill, Lancaster, Rosamond, Tehachapi, Mojave and California City with dedicated points at schools ranging from kindergarten to college.
Jessica said, “In order to ‘Break Tomorrow’s Barriers Today’, the theme of the AV Airshow, we need the next generation of scientists, engineers, pilots, and manufacturers excited and ready to take on the challenge. My intent was to encourage STEM education and awareness of STEM careers,” she added.
Peterson worked with the 412th Test Wing public affairs office to create recorded content on the base website that featured an interactive STEM toolkit for students to view prior to the flyover.
“I wanted to be able to speak at all 50-plus schools, but since that wasn’t feasible we created a page and recorded content to reach all the schools participating in the STEM outreach flyover,” said Peterson.
The website features videos of several of the men and women of the EAFB Test mission, to teach students how they use STEM in their careers and how they ended up in the Aerospace Valley.
The website also includes videos aimed at elementary, middle, and high school levels explaining flight test engineering, STEM opportunities, Automatic Collision Avoidance Technology flight test, and the 75th anniversary of Supersonic Flight with Edwards AFB’s unique role in the breaking of the sound barrier in 1945.
Brig. Gen. Matthew Higer, commander of the 412th Test Wing, commented after the Air Show and STEM event, “I’m so deeply humbled by the inspirational investment I witnessed by all the key players and volunteers that made the last 6 days happen; an investment that clearly resonated with kids ages 3 to 13, for they are the STEM future of our Nation;”
Now Technical Director of the 412th Operations Group at Edwards, and Flight Test Engineer Instructor at the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, she delivered a gripping narrative about her life’s journey and the fulfillment that comes from developing new technologies that save the lives of pilots, aircrews and passengers.
She described in detail the challenges and risks faced by team members with whom she worked in developing and conducting the flight-testing of two computer systems at Edwards. One, the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (GCAS), was designed to prevent an aircraft from crashing to the ground when the pilot is unconscious. The other, the Automatic Collision Avoidance Technology (ACAT) is designed to prevent midair collisions between military aircraft.
Reminding the audience of her talk’s title, “Flight Test Engineering and Saving Lives,” Peterson reported that since the ground avoidance system was installed in the F-16 fighter aircraft, lives of the pilots and their aircraft were saved, and newer fighters, including the F-22 and F-35 have the systems designed-in. She personally knows of a dozen fighter pilots who are alive and well today because the ground avoidance system worked.
The challenge in testing, she said, comes with fundamental rules that the systems must do no harm to the pilot, don’t interfere with the pilot doing the job, and still prevent a collision. Added to those rules are processes to be avoided, among them what flight test pilots call, “The Mad Scientist.” In other words, don’t trust the system to be flawless.
And then there’s the need for patience. She said, for example, it took two years of testing to plan for a five-second maneuvering window of opportunity to save the pilot and the plane. In another instance, the automatic system gives a stricken pilot a vital extra three seconds to survive what was previously fatal.
More recently, on Feb. 3, 2023, Peterson traveled to the California Aeronautical University in Bakersfield, Calif., for their Aviation Career Day. At CAU, hundreds of local area students got the chance to experience being a test pilot and flight test engineer with an inspiration through aviation from the team.
“This is their career fair,” said Peterson. “Around 700 students came through, mainly high school students, that wanted to learn about aviation and the opportunities in aviation. They came to learn more about CAU and local aviation opportunities including ours.”