Lily Arcusa began her academic career at the University of Michigan in LS&A as a math major, unsure of which career path would be right for her. With the birth of her first daughter, she realized that engineering’s opportunities would provide the best life for her budding family. Though still an LS&A student, she began to take engineering classes and became intrigued by aerospace engineering and the possibility of working in the space industry. In particular, then professor of aerospace engineering Alec Gallimore, now Dean of Engineering, through his classroom stories of working with NASA, inspired Lily to choose aerospace engineering as her major. She was pleased to find a tight-knit community in the aerospace department that made her feel comfortable asking questions to professors and collaborating on assignments with her peers outside of class and ended up focusing on spacecraft design and propulsion systems.
“The skills I learned in college were broadly applicable across engineering, so I was able to move from auxiliary power to other airplane systems,” Lily said. “I asked if I could work in Environmental Control Systems and then move into Life Support Systems. Those systems are powered by air that comes from the propulsion systems, so it was a nice career progression for me.”
As a Life Support Systems engineer, she worked on a challenging problem for the F-22 fighter plane in which pilots were feeling sick during flight. She headed the investigation on their life support systems, designed and conducted altitude chamber and centrifuge tests and ultimately helped identify solutions to the problem. As a result of the investigation, the US Air Force was able to lift limitations they had put on the aircraft.
After her work on the F-22, she was promoted to Lead Utilities and Subsystems Engineer for the F-35, in which she was responsible for all the subsystems on the F-35 aircraft. She later worked for a newly established Rapid Sustainment Office in the Air Force tasked with utilizing new technology to keep older airplanes functional in an easy and cheap way. As Chief Technology Officer, she formed the engineering group responsible for identifying and applying different innovative technologies to the older planes.
Being entrusted with creating an engineering group for the Air Force was a huge career highlight,” Lily said.
Now, as Director of Engineering for the Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate, Lily uses her leadership skills to manage three engineering divisions. The Commercial Derivative Aircraft Division based in Oklahoma at Tinker Air Force Base supports the “blue and white” aircraft used to transport Air Force senior leaders, as well as the First Lady and the President. The second group she manages is located at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio and is currently developing a modern replacement for the aging Air Force One. The third group she manages is already planning a future replacement for the E-4B, also known as the “Doomsday Plane”, which is intended to serve as a communications hub in case of emergency situations. Among these updates, Lily’s main task is to digitize processes in the aerospace industry.
“Right now, my biggest goal is moving engineering into a digital enterprise,” Lily said. “There are such great advancements in computing and modeling capabilities that allow us to do things that we just couldn’t do before. One of my tasks is to help our engineering staff grow to be able to take advantage of that new technology.”
Throughout her career, Lily has been able to utilize her leadership qualities on a variety of projects in engineering management roles. She admits that these aren’t often the type of skills that come to mind when considering a career in engineering, but she wants to assure future engineers that they are equally essential as math or physics.
Engineering management jobs rely on skills like communication, writing, collaboration, mediation and problem solving, which can make you a really successful engineer even if you’re not the stereotypical engineering student—because I certainly wasn’t, but I kept an open mind and I found my fit.” Lily Arcusa
Lily Arcusa graduated from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering in 2003. She is the Director of Engineering for the US Air Force Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate and has worked in a myriad of engineering roles at the US Air Force for seventeen consecutive years. Among these roles, she has been a Lead Life Support Engineer, Lead Utilities and Subsystems Engineer, Chief Flight Systems Engineer, Deputy Air Vehicle Lead Engineer, and Chief Technology Officer. Some of the notable planes she’s worked on include the C-17, F-22, F-35, and the KC-46.