Believing in dreams through the test of time

Christine Walsh in front of an airplane
Christine Walsh (EMBA 2009) lives the life of a rock star. She has many adoring fans, literally jets around the globe, and in her own words, is “living an amazing dream.” In this superstar’s world, she might be speaking to an arena of 15,000 students from 500 Washington schools, having them on the edges of the seats with stories of setting aviation world records. Or, she could be grabbing high-fives on the tarmac from awestruck company executives after completing the maiden flight of a 737 MAX 9. It’s all part of her job as Boeing Deputy Chief Pilot for the 737/737 MAX.

In rock star fashion, but without the ego or pretense, Captain Walsh is all about dreaming large, thinking large and doing large. From the time Walsh was a little girl and dreamed of being an astronaut, the moon and stars were only a heartbeat away. Walsh’s love for aviation sprouted wings during the time when the space program delivered men to walk on the moon. An innate fascination with flying has always been with her.

“I went into the program unsure of how I was going to work on a team or with a team that wasn’t data-centric. I was one of a very few engineers and I was the only test pilot. I had to gain perspective on the different approaches to a problem, not just utilizing data. I had to extend beyond my knowledge and comfort.”

“As a child, I took introductory flight lessons. I was hooked. When it was time to start college, I studied aerospace engineering because that’s what was required to become an astronaut, which was what I wanted to do one day,” says Walsh. “I was interested in how people and machines came together to create and accomplish incredible things.”

Walsh earned a Bachelor of Science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado. During her time at school, she blended engineering principles with human factors in relation to creating and building airplanes. Boeing interviewed her during a job fair and offered her a payload engineer position. Her first assignment was to redesign the toilet bowl in an aircraft lavatory. Walsh shares, “The toilet wasn’t flushing properly. My introduction to test flying included proving a redesign by flushing dog food down the toilet.”

Flight lessons were expensive and Walsh couldn’t afford them as a student. Once she started her career at Boeing in 1990, though, she began her flight training at 23 years old. She wanted to combine her love of engineering with her passion to fly. Boeing was known for being progressive with the promotion of women in pilot and engineering positions. With sights set high on becoming a test pilot, she took one of Boeing’s chief test pilots to lunch. She expressed her aspirations and inquired about what she’d need to do to achieve her goal.

Christine Walsh in the cockpit“He told me it wasn’t possible, because I didn’t have the skills or military background,” she recalls. Walsh asked him, “What would I need to achieve?” The pilot made a long list of requirements. One of the most daunting was 1,500 hours of flying time.

Walsh found a mentor and began training for a pilot’s license. She says, “Every time one of the items on the list had been completed, I’d send my mentor an updated resume. I asked a lot of questions along the way. It took me seven years to complete the training. I had to resign from my original job at Boeing so I could focus full time on finishing the flight hours. Once I had checked off all the items on the list, I got a call from the original test pilot I’d talked to, offering me a co-pilot position.”

Walsh shares that the job requires both technical skills and sharp instincts, and describes what a test pilot actually does. “Test pilots are ultimately responsible for the safe conduct of the flight, but our responsibilities extend beyond that. We participate in the engineering teams’ designing of the aircraft and we work with customers to better understand how their aircraft will be used. This is in addition to flying the airplane to feel how it handles to better understand its characteristics.”

Being out of my engineering world was challenging. I recall worrying how I’d ever make it through the program and constantly confided these worries to my professors. They were all supportive and guided me through, as I gained confidence and new perspectives by working with my peers.

She adds, “We help answer questions such as, How slow can it fly? How does the plane handle? What are the plane’s performance limitations? What kinds of winds can the plane handle? What types of weather can the plane withstand? As engineering test pilots, one of our responsibilities after a test flight is to clearly explain to the airline mechanics and the engineers what we felt and experienced during the flight. We need to translate the feel of the aircraft into language that makes sense.”

Sometime around 2008, Walsh was working with a chief pilot who was a Foster Executive MBA graduate. “He was using tools he’d learned from the classroom to lead our organization. He felt it was important for pilots working with experimental aircraft to have an understanding of Boeing’s business goals. We work closely with customers from around the world. We have to ensure our products meet their needs from comfort, safety and economic standpoints. Our industry is extremely competitive and it’s up to every Boeing employee to understand the full scope of our competitive environment.”

Walsh continues, “We have to be able to work with the sales team in promoting the product and be able to clearly explain the benefits of our product in meaningful terms they can use. Pilots may understand technical terms, but we as pilots, in support of our sales teams, have to translate to customers why our planes are such a good value.”

Christine Walsh gives a presentationBased on the chief pilot’s encouragement, Walsh entered the EMBA Program in 2009. “I went into the program unsure of how I was going to work on a team or with a team that wasn’t data-centric” she says. “I was one of a very few engineers and I was the only test pilot. I had to gain perspective on the different approaches to a problem, not just utilizing data. I had to extend beyond my knowledge and comfort.”

She says, “When I was in school before, I’d not turned in a paper without numbers or symbols, or one that asked for an opinion. Being out of my engineering world was challenging. I recall worrying how I’d ever make it through the program and constantly confided these worries to my professors. They were all supportive and guided me through, as I gained confidence and new perspectives by working with my peers.”

Walsh began to open up in class when she was able to share flight test perspectives on risk alleviation and mitigation. “Our class would talk about risk or aversion to risk, and I’d be able to come up with a straightforward answer. A risk associated with planning a flight test versus a business situation with a different risk tolerance was a huge distinction for me, and perhaps my biggest takeaway from the program. Risk tolerance is different depending upon the application. This was the first time I recall feeling like I could be a leader in classroom discussions.”

I think all those difficulties made us stronger as a team. I started to understand that answers aren’t only black and white; differing answers to problems and questions are sometimes all correct. Stories behind the answers can be more important than the outcomes.

The interpersonal closeness also expanded her understanding of herself and the dynamics of business. “When you get into the program, you study together and work together. We shared a range of personal successes and failures. My program took place in the middle of the bank industry crash which personally impacted my team members. Several people lost jobs. There were real-world stresses impacting and shaping our experience.”

Walsh believes that this time of challenge provided invaluable wisdom. “I think all those difficulties made us stronger as a team. I started to understand that answers aren’t only black and white; differing answers to problems and questions are sometimes all correct. Stories behind the answers can be more important than the outcomes.”

Since pilots are required to be continually learning, getting her EMBA felt like a luxury. “It was validating to go back to school to study something new and different. It filled a need. It was a sacrifice, especially for my husband; he had to pick up the life work and housework. It took us being a team on the home front.”

Walsh expresses humility and gratitude for a career she only dreamed of at one time. Among other perks, it’s enabled her to be the test pilot for new planes such as the 737 MAX 9, and to fly around the world in 42 hours. “There’s nothing like seeing the entirety of Earth from the sky in a 42-hour period.”

I am proof that if you have a dream, making it come true is 100 percent within your grasp. You need to make a plan, know and celebrate everything that makes you special and unique, and then find mentors who are eager to help you succeed.

She credits her success to the steady support of her family and Boeing. She also acknowledges the Foster School of Business Executive MBA faculty for their encouragement. “The professors and staff prepared each and every student to become leaders. They did this by helping us discover our own expertise as leaders and to know when to rely on the team for support.”

“One of the most important things I learned was to listen for my own voice changing,” she concludes. “The tone of the changes may not be monumental, but significant nonetheless. Hearing your own voice shift as you learn is when real change begins.”

Walsh offered the following encouragement to thousands of community service–focused teens at WE Day Seattle, summing up her personal grace and professional grit: “I am proof that if you have a dream, making it come true is 100 percent within your grasp. You need to make a plan, know and celebrate everything that makes you special and unique, and then find mentors who are eager to help you succeed.”