Hennings earns award for parachute contributions

Hennings earns award for parachute contributionsBy STACIE BAILEY

NAWCWD Public Affairs

Elsa Hennings, the senior systems engineer in the Escape, Parachute and Crashworthy Division at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, has made a career out of creating safe landings while she, herself, has remained grounded throughout her successes. On June 7 Hennings became the first female and Navy employee to receive the Theodor W. Knacke Aerodynamic Decelerator Systems Award. The award presentation will take place during the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Aviation Conference in Denver, Colorado.

“When I found out, I was overjoyed,” Hennings said. “I don’t feel like this award is to me alone. It’s to me with all of the support I’ve gotten throughout my career from fantastic coworkers, mentors, family, friends and colleagues who have all been a part of this. I don’t ever want to lose focus of that.”

The Aerodynamic Decelerator Systems award is given to an individual selected by previous recipients and recognizes significant contributions to the advancement of aeronautical or aerospace systems through research, development and application of the art and science of aerodynamic decelerator technology. It is presented by the AIAA biennially in odd-numbered years.

Knacke, for whom the award was named, worked with the Technical Information Department at China Lake in the late 1980s to help compile and document his design methodology for building parachutes. Hennings mentored under Knacke very early in her career, and parachute designers throughout the world still use his documents today.

“We had three young engineers who came in at the same time when I started, and I was the only female,” Hennings recalled. “We had a chief engineer at the time who was a little old fashioned. He felt, I found out later, that I would eventually quit and go have babies and be a mom, so he didn’t spend much time working with me. When [Knacke] came up here, I latched onto him, and he was very patient and just wonderful to work with. He was so passionate about parachuting and you could feel it coming off him. It was exciting to me to see someone with such passion for his work, and it transferred to me.”

Just as that chief engineer suspected, Hennings did become a mom, but she didn’t quit. Instead, she continued to work part-time until her youngest child got her driver’s license. Hennings never let her job status deter her from doing what she loved- — saving lives.

“One thing that really motivates me in this field is the fact that we are trying to save people,” Hennings said, recalling a meeting with a Navy lieutenant who was directly impacted by her work on an emergency bailout system. “He came up to me and said, ‘I just want to thank you for saving my life.’ He had been one of three aviators on an E-2 aircraft that was on fire when they bailed out. It was an awesome feeling to connect with someone whose life you helped save. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, there’s nothing like it. That’s what keeps me going.”

Her nomination states, “Since Hennings has been at China Lake, a multitude of weapons systems, targets and sensor packages have benefitted from the addition of deceleration systems to safely recover extremely valuable prototype payloads for post-test analysis.

“From serving on a team that designed and tested an emergency bailout parachute system to her efforts in support of NASA’s Mars Pathfinder, two Mars Exploration Rover spacecraft and the Orion parachute, Hennings’ “engineering acumen and creativity have made her a go-to engineer within the United States for recovery systems expertise and have brought a wealth of cutting-edge expertise to that discipline.”

“This is a technical field where we use structural, flexible textiles and there’s not a lot of expertise in that,” she said. “What else can you think of that has to be strong, flexible and made of textiles? Not much. I look at it as there’s not a lot known about it, so we’re constantly making new discoveries and there’s always new ways to do things.”

An engineer, author and consultant who holds several patents, Hennings is an active volunteer in the Ridgecrest community and is one of only seven Naval Air Systems Command Esteemed Fellows at NAWCWD. She looks to retire in the next couple of years and said that, even if she could, she wouldn’t change a thing about her career.

“Someone asked me once years ago, ‘What’s your highest goal in life?’ Hennings said. “It was that I want to live my life so that my children will be proud of me. If my kids are proud of me, that means a lot. I would hope that they would say I made good choices.”

Pictured: Elsa Hennings with Dr. Dimitri Mavris (left) and Fay Collier. -- Courtesy photo

Story First Published: 2017-06-23