Beatriz & Manuel Rodriguez: unique expertise at AFLCMC
In a journey that spanned two countries, this engineering couple take different paths as experts and leaders, but stand united as a family
Beatriz "Betty" and Manuel "Manny" Rodriguez's families did not know one another when they left their native Cuba in the 1970s and settled in the same neighborhood in Puerto Rico.
"In Puerto Rico, we went to the same school and the same church," Betty explains. "I don't think we ever would have met if our parents had stayed in Cuba." They were high school sweethearts, and married in 1981.
Now, more than thirty years later, they both work in the engineering directorate of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, OH. The directorate provides state-of-the-art technical support for every aircraft and weapon system in the USAF inventory.
Expertise in fuels
Betty is chief engineer of the USAF alternative fuel certification division, where she directs the research and certification of synthetic and biomass-derived alternative aviation fuels, including work with animal fats and plant oils. "Our primary interest is to maintain the future flexibility of fuel sources through increased diversity in alternative fuels," she says.
Betty started as a fuel systems project engineer for the B-1B bomber system program office (SPO) where she guided the design, development and testing of a fire detection/fuel isolation and fire suppression system.
She is recognized as the AFLCMC's fuel systems and fire protection technical expert. In 1996, at the request of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), she assisted in the accident investigation of TWA Flight 800 as fuel system technical expert. "I prepared a comprehensive technical report and submitted findings and recommendations to the NTSB," she says. "I received a Special Service Award in 1997 for representing the Air Force and the NTSB as an expert witness during the Flight 800 public hearing."
Betty spends a lot of time in hour-long meetings discussing plans and test results. Her team consists of engineers, project managers, fuel specialists, finance people and contractors.
Meanwhile, Manny works in a different area at Wright-Patterson. He is an electromagnetic environmental effects (E3) technical advisor. "We provide tech support to AFLCMC program offices and USAF logistics centers in the areas of electromagnetic effects, design protection, certification testing and airworthiness," he explains.
"We also do certification of carry-on equipment and portable electronic devices. On commercial flights, you can't use these until you are at 10,000 feet, but some of our VIPs need their equipment during the whole flight, so we ensure that the equipment doesn't jeopardize the safety of the aircraft. I provide that final equipment certification.
"Another part of my job is protection of aircraft and aircraft equipment from the effects of lightning," he explains.
Manny is part of the network and communications branch in the Wright-Patterson avionics division. He works with a group of four engineers.
"Our group does a lot of analytical work and assessments," he says. "If equipment is malfunctioning due to a certain environment, we have to assess what the environment is and how the equipment was certified, and come up with an answer."
Manny spends time in electromagnetic interference laboratories and on board aircraft, testing equipment and making sure design requirements are met.
"When we have a new aircraft or one that's been modified, we are responsible for verifying airworthiness. We are the other set of eyes," he notes, "that determines whether it is safe to fly or not."
Manny and Betty met when he was about to graduate from high school and Betty had just started. Manny attended the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguëz, graduating with his BS in electrical engineering in 1981.
Betty wanted to be a medical doctor. "But when I saw the courses that Manny was taking, I liked them and thought I'd give engineering a try.
"Wright-Patterson had sent recruiters to Puerto Rico so I interviewed with them," says Manny. "Although I had several other offers, I liked the Midwest. And thirty years later, here we are."
Another interest that helped seal the Midwest deal: Manny is a fan of baseball and the nearby Cincinnati Reds.
"We made the decision together," adds Betty, "but for me it was the closeness of the universities." They were married in July 1981 and came to Ohio in August.
Betty finished her degree after they moved. "I completed my degree in systems engineering with a mechanical focus at Wright State University (Fairborn, OH)," she says. "In 1984 I was hired by the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson."
In 1988, she received her MS in mechanical engineering from the University of Dayton. A year later, Manny earned his MS in electrical engineering from the same school.
Separate professional worlds
Professionally, their paths rarely cross. "We have completely different areas of expertise, which is good," says Betty. "We don't compete with each other," she says with a laugh. "But there was one time when we supported the same program offices."
"We had some technical issues going on," Manny remembers. "I had to find a fuel expert, so guess who?"
Family comes first
Both Betty and Manny did a lot of traveling early in their careers, when their kids were still living at home. "Our commitment was that if one traveled, the other stayed home. We planned ahead and tried hard to move our meetings around the family. It was very important to stay one with the family," Betty emphasizes.
They agree that balance isn't always easy to achieve. Manny explains that, "because of the commitment we put into both work and family, we're always on the move with little time to spare. But we make it work."
Looking ahead, Manny is thinking about retirement but Betty smiles, reminding him that she has five years to go yet. "I don't think it's going to happen any time soon anyway," says Manny. "I'm eligible now but our youngest is still in college and we support him. We like what we do here and have a lot of work ahead of us."
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