Discover Emmanuel

Ryan '50 Reflects on Career in the Aerospace Industry

August 13, 2015

Mathematics major Bertha Ryan '50, who just attended her 65th reunion at Emmanuel this summer, reflects on an interesting career that began at Emmanuel, continued to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for graduate work and then took her to California, where she went to work for the aerospace industry.

It was a time of seemingly unlimited possibility. America at war was settling into a peacetime economy. Factories that had boomed with wartime munitions turned back to producing consumer goods and building airplanes that would test the boundaries of flight and American ingenuity.

It was a world perfectly made for Bertha M. Ryan '50, a young woman from Newton, Massachusetts, who dreamed the dreams that very few women of her generation were thought to hold: Dreams of flying and aviation, science and mathematics. By the time she landed at Emmanuel College for her freshman year, Ryan was - literally - already flying, having qualified for her private license a few years earlier in a Piper J-3 Cub. If society had other ideas for what a young woman might properly pursue, those ideas didn't occur to Ryan. Nor were they imposed at Emmanuel College, then an all-women's college, where Ryan was free to pursue a concentration in math that she knew would be needed to fuel her aviation ambitions.

"My time at Emmanuel College was busy, but I felt very much at home there because I could pursue my studies and also work outside of school," Ryan recalled. "I had tremendous support and encouragement from my professors and built a foundation there that served me throughout my life and career."

Returning to campus this summer for her 65th reunion, Ryan could reflect on an interesting career that began at Emmanuel, continued to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for graduate work and then took her to California, where she went to work for the aerospace industry. She was realizing her dream: Fusing her passion with her career. Her workweek at NASA would typically involve aerodynamic testing, using a wind tunnel and a flight simulator to verify a theoretical analysis for aircraft being flown by test pilots. On the weekends, she would fly her own sailplane.

Her first job in California was at Douglas Aircraft, where she worked on aerodynamic interference studies. After four years, she moved to NASA at Edwards Air Force Base in the desert.

"One of the nice things about the job was the fact that you could work on the theory, and you could work on analysis, and you could work on flight simulation and work on the wind tunnel to get the data, and then you could compare your results with actual full-scale flight data," said Ryan. "So it was satisfying that way, to be able to see if what you had predicted actually came true."

While she found success early in her career, her childhood was not nearly as smooth. As the youngest of four children, she lost her father when she was three years old and her mother struggled to raise her and her three brothers during the Great Depression and into World War II, when food and other necessities were rationed. Her recollection of those days, however, is more positive than negative, recalling her mother as a strong woman who persevered and encouraged her children to work and study hard for a better life. "She made it seem normal and natural that a woman could do all these tasks alone - and do them well - under difficult circumstances," said Ryan.

Ryan's singular focus on flying and all things aviation was seeded long before her arrival at the Emmanuel campus. She recalls the influence that aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart had on her when she was a child. Not even the tragic disappearance of the famed aviator over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 could dissuade Ryan from her pursuit of flying.

Ryan's mother came from a different era, having been born before airplanes existed, and did not understand or support her daughter's desire to fly. But her mother also instilled in her two pieces of advice that were not forgotten: "You can do anything you want if you work hard enough," and "Don't be afraid to be different."  That advice was sufficient to support her passion for flying.

While Ryan was in high school during World War II, she worked at Raytheon on weekends and during school vacations. One of her brothers was an Air Force pilot (Air Corps at the time), and he came home on leave while transitioning to the Pacific Area of Operations. He understood Ryan's love of aviation and arranged to take her to a local airport where she had her first airplane ride and her first flying lesson. Her mother's vain hope that she would not like flying was not realized: Ryan loved it and immediately arranged to take lessons. She soloed an airplane a few weeks later.

After graduating from her high school class of 1,000 in 1946, Ryan arrived at Emmanuel College to find just 175 women in her freshman class. With a partial scholarship from Emmanuel and another scholarship from a women's club in Newton, she settled into her studies, supplementing her scholarships with a part-time job working in the chemistry department as well as weekend and evening work as a cashier at Star Market.

Unable to afford full-time tuition at MIT, Ryan took just two courses a semester while working full time at the school - first in the Math Department and then in the Aeroelastic and Structures Research Lab. She joined the Aeronautical Engineering Society, which was the glider club. There she learned to fly gliders/sailplanes but, more importantly, she also learned what aeronautical (now aerospace) engineering was and transferred her work and studies to that department. She received an M.S. in Aerodynamics in 1955 and moved to California in 1956 to work in the aerospace industry.

Almost as soon as she arrived in California, Ryan set out to build her own "sailplane," a Schweizer SGS 1-26A glider kit that she completed by 1956 and flew regularly for fun. And despite working in a profession dominated by men, Ryan never saw this as a barrier. In fact, she didn't think about it much at all.

"The work was fun and interesting for everyone," said Ryan. "And I loved every minute of it."

These were heady times in aerospace engineering with a new breed of test pilots, with engineering and scientific credentials, paving the way toward future space travel. By the time she went to work at NASA in January 1960, the future of aeronautics was changing rapidly.

While at NASA, she worked briefly on a project to study sonic booms to determine if they could ever become a weapon and also to assess whether supersonic flights across the country might prove too disturbing to those living below its flight path. However, her main effort was on the lifting body project - a design for flying back safely from orbit with a horizontal landing on an airport. [The lifting body shape (wingless) can alleviate the heating problem encountered upon entry into the atmosphere.]

Ryan worked on various projects with the pilots at NASA - several of whom became astronauts. The one she knew best was Neil Armstrong, who later became the first person to walk on the Moon. He was also kind enough to help her with her homework now and then in a course on heat transfer they both took at the University of Southern California.

After years of the long commute by bus to her job at NASA, Ryan took a new position with the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake, a military base where she lived among some military, but mostly among civilians like herself. "It was essentially a government town, and I lived on base in a one-bedroom apartment," said Ryan. "It was rather low cost, and after three years there I was able to buy an airplane [a Piper Cherokee140B]."

Ryan's job with the Navy involved various research and practical projects as well as problems specifically related to the Vietnam War. At China Lake, her work was mostly associated with weapons research. But the proximity to her work and what amounted to an around-the-clock work environment suited her temperament. "When we were all on base, everybody you associated with was somebody you worked with, so you'd be talking business 24 hours a day," she said.  "You'd go into work at all hours. If you thought of any idea, you'd go in and work on it. So the work was really your complete life."

Her final project before she retired from China Lake in 1991 was what was then called the National Aero Space Plane, or the X-30, an aircraft that was designed for horizontal takeoff and landing with single stage to orbit and somewhat of a lifting body shape. It never flew as it was ahead of its time, but the research and knowledge derived from that work served as a good transition for the new generation of engineers who have been working on very high-speed aerodynamics.

Since her retirement, Ryan has kept busy flying and writing articles - including a monthly column - for several national magazines as well as a book. She has also remained faithful to Emmanuel College, where she first acquired the academic foundation for her successful career. And though her graduation in 1950 seems a lifetime ago, she is forever the young woman photographed with her beloved glider in the California desert, eager to get airborne and unshackled from the earth.

slideshowBertha Ryan '50: From Emmanuel College to MIT, from NASA to the Navy