Decisions on an Impulse

January 22, 2019

 

The Solar Impulse 2 airplane cuts a graceful silhouette. It has a slim singleseat cockpit with two propellers on either side, all below a lanky 236-ft wing. Look at the wing from above, and you’ll see the array of solar panels laid out along its top.


In 2016, this solar airplane made its way around the world without fuel in 17 legs that stretched through day and night, including a five-day, five-night recordbreaking flight from Japan to Hawaii. The mission: use adventurous Jules-Verneesque derring-do to spread the message that “everybody could use the same technologies on the ground to halve our world’s energy consumption, save natural resources, and improve our quality of life.”

 

Paige Kassalen, an electrical engineer fresh out of Virginia Tech, was a member of the ground crew. As a result, she was required to do things like stand on the runway and hold up the wing to balance the plane before takeoff. For a year, she traveled the world in a combined public relations/ground-crew role in what she called one of the most exciting experiences of her lifetime. The work she performed with Solar Impulse earned her a 2017 spot in the “energy” category on the exclusive Forbes 30 Under 30 list.

 

So, how did Kassalen land this dream job? You might say it was luck, being in the right place at the right time, but there’s often more to  the story. To be in the right place, there’s usually some risk-taking involved—an adventurous spirit and a willingness to face possible failure.

 

It started when, as an undergrad, Kassalen participated in a number of internships. Her most recent internship experience took her someplace unexpected—Baytown, Texas. For this East-Coaster, the location itself was a big change. 

 

She was interning at the manufacturing facility of materials science company Covestro and out of her comfort zone, but only for a while. In fact, she liked Covestro so much—especially the way people supported her and recognized her potential—that she accepted a full-time job at the company.

 

She was six months into Covestro’s trainee program, rotating through certain aspects of its business, when she happened upon an interesting internal need. The company was looking for an electrical engineer with a background in public relations to travel the world with Solar Impulse.

 

Covestro has been an official partner of the Swiss-led solar airplane since 2010. Its role is to contribute technology, and its products are found in the cockpit insulation, windshield, coating on the wing, and many other materials throughout the plane.

 

Kassalen studied the listing. She was in a sorority at Virginia Tech and served as its vice president of public relations. She took her experience and, with the help and support of those she worked with, applied for the position.

 

She was chosen to travel with Solar Impulse from Hawaii to the United Arab Emirates as part of the 16-member ground crew on a 60-person team. If interning at Covestro had felt like an adventure, this was something else entirely—she doesn’t know that she’ll ever feel as out of her comfort zone as she did those first few days on the job. Kassalen was the only member from the United States, and there were language barriers. She was the youngest member of the ground crew as well as a new engineering graduate, and she suddenly had all of these new responsibilities where there was no answer in the back of the textbook. Decisions needed to be made in real time. “I had to remember to stay confident and find my role on the team,” Kassalen says. “Without support, you really can’t do anything, but I had everyone at Covestro saying I could do it.”

 

The Solar Impulse 2 may have a huge wing span, but it weighs only as much as a sport-utility vehicle, coming in at 5,100 lb. They have to keep the weight down, so it’s very light on electrical components. For example, there’s no automatic taxi mechanism. If there’s an electric component on that plane, it’s to power the airplane and the propellers. This is why, out on the runway, Kassalen and the crew would pull the airplane out to position and hold up the wing to balance the plane before takeoff. She might walk with the tail of the airplane or ride along beside it on an electric bicycle.

 

As the plane took off, the crew would stand on the side of the runway and watch. Once it was in the air, the crew members would pack up their supplies and catch a commercial flight to their next destination. After landing, they’d unpack and wait on the side of the runway as the plane came into view. They always had plenty of time—we’re talking about an airplane that only goes 30–60 mi/h. For perspective, a Hawaii-to-California flight took three days.

 

As it reached the runway, the ground crew would catch the airplane, grabbing hold of a bar on the wing for balance. They’d pull it into the hanger or inflate a large hanger around it.


This was adrenaline-pumping, highstakes work. There was a lot that could go wrong when the plane took off. “If I were to mess up, I had to remember I was still chosen for a reason,” Kassalen recounts. “I had to be confident in both failing and succeeding.”


Kassalen’s time with Solar Impulse ended in 2016. Now she’s back in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at Covestro’s North American headquarters. She has moved into data marketing and analytics, where she’s studying the future of mobility. To do this, she keeps an eye on hot technologies and innovations by researching and attending shows like the International CES in Las Vegas, Nevada. She looks at everything from autonomous vehicles to bikes, even sitting people-movers that look like Segways, with the objective of developing strategies for how materials will play into these transportation changes in the future.
Kassalen doesn’t want to be put into a box or fall into the trap of “I have an electrical engineering (EE) degree, so I can only do textbook EE work.” Covestro has allowed her to explore some of her other passions and combine them into a unique and exciting career path. This is something she really wants young women to know—you don’t have to lose any parts of your personality or personal interests when you become an engineer.


“Just because you get a degree in electrical engineering or chemical engineering, if you have an idea of how you want to combine that in the future to do something completely different, don’t be scared to do that,” she advises. “Just because no one’s done that before or it feels weird doesn’t mean that it’s wrong.” 

 

This article first appeared in IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine December 2017.

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