Lynn Root is a senior principal engineer at Universal Avionics. Here she is pictured celebrating her 20-year anniversary with the company.
Lynn Root was sitting in her car at an intersection, preparing to turn right when two cars in front of her got into an accident. The responding officer got the “most organized” description of an accident he had ever received.
Because both drivers claimed the other was at fault, the case went to court. Based on who was where and the fact that she was still waiting for her green, Root told the officer, she knew which of the two drivers was necessarily lying about having theirs. The other driver’s lawyer reached out to Root after the case to thank her.
Lynn Root discovered in high school that her organized, logical thought processes worked a lot like those of a computer. That led to a systematic process of choosing between college programs, an even-more-procedural choice of employment and, ultimately, a three-and-counting-decade career as an avionics engineer (and much shorter stint as an amateur traffic cop/lawyer).
Root, whose subject matter expertise earned her the nickname "Goddess of UniLink" in her office at Universal Avionics Systems Corp., talked to Avionics about the ever-reliable FANS, working at UASC and what it was like for a woman to get into the avionics industry in the 1980s.
You went to school for computer science and then pretty much straight into avionics and aviation software. At the time, it was a much less robust field than today. What led you there?
During my senior year of college, a bunch of companies came and did on-campus visits and interviews. I participated in those interviews and Honeywell down in Phoenix was one of the companies that gave me a follow-up, on-site interview. I traveled down there, went down in April when weather was great. I left snowy Pullman and went to sunny Phoenix. They were one of the companies that offered me a job, and I kind of created a spreadsheet of cost of living and salary rate and picked the one that I thought would give me the greatest advantage. So that was my introduction to aviation and avionics and I've employed in that industry 30+ years now.
Aviation and engineering are both heavily male, and that was even more the case at that time. What was it like for you to go into such a male-dominated field?
When I was graduating from college that's when the real push began for more diversity in the workplace, and I personally believe that at least from my perceptions and observations, a lot of the men in the industry at that time believed that women were being hired simply because they were women and not because they were actual capable engineers. I used to tell people that I had to do my job four times better than any man in order to be considered fortunately, that wasn't too hard. I don't believe it took me very long to prove myself at Honeywell. I moved very quickly from having a direct mentor overseeing everything that I was doing to actually assisting my technical lead on how to use newer computer science techniques in engineering development on the product. so my introduction into Honeywell went fairly well.
I decided after being there for several years that Phoenix was just too hot for me. I moved back to Seattle and started working at Boeing. Around that time was when I started having children. I started working part time at that point. But then, Boeing was going through a layoff and they wanted me to work full time, and they wanted to change my commute from being 15 minutes away from the office to 45, to an hour or more, so I accepted a layoff from Boeing and then took a job at a company called Teledyne Controls.
It was not Teledyne Controls in California. They purchased a small company up here that began the development of a communication management unit specifically targeted to business jet aircraft. I worked there for several years. I was the lead systems engineer at that time with four software engineers reporting to me, and we were actually working with Universal to develop the first UniLink product. Universal was doing the hardware; We were doing the system design and the software.
Shortly after we released that product, the local management at Teledyne changed and when the new management came in the first conversation we had was him telling me that he doesn't believe that females make good engineers. I was an engineer for about a decade at that point. I was the only systems engineer and the program manager of the one avionics product that this company was developing.
Anyway, I believe I had a new job within a week with Universal Avionics. I called them after that and told them, “I will be leaving this company. Since I worked closely with you on the development of this product, I'll give you first opportunity to offer me employment; otherwise, I'm sure your competitors would be interested in my skills/
I haven't had any of those issues at all with anybody directly employed by Universal Avionics. I have been involved in meetings with customers where they'll ask questions and they'll direct the questions to the men and the men at Universal will say well I don't know, But Lynn can give you the answer to that. They've always redirected the attention to the subject matter expert and have had no issues doing that from day one. I tend to be very confident in my technical capabilities, and I have tended to be pretty outspoken whenever I have felt someone has misjudged my employment because I'm a female.
In light of the time you’ve spent working in the same industry, how have you seen things change?
The growth in downlink services for something like the flight management system hasn't changed very substantially. FANS was introduced about the time I was first entering the industry; that was a huge advancement at the time. But It's been around since pretty early in my involvement in that industry, and it's still around and in operation today. The mechanisms used to transmit data to the aircraft has advanced some as well as services beyond the FMS and services beyond the CMU itself. More flight deck connectivity has come and with the advent now of the higher-bandwidth SATCOM systems that are now coming, that's something I think is a trend that's going to continue: services on the flight deck that benefit from more data traversing over larger pipes.
What do you anticipate that looking like as we go forward?
The industry has been working on the baseline 2 standards for quite a few years. Trajectory-based operations, enhanced datalink I think is going to be something that's going to be coming sooner rather than later. The ability to uplink ATC wind data so that all the aircraft flying within a given region are all using the same wind data, so their flight path and performance calculations are all being computed relative to the same wind information is going to probably become key for some of the technological advancements.
Walk me through your day-to-day at UASC.
I'm actively involved in industry developments within the datalink industry. I'm a member of the SC214 VDL sub-group as well as involved in the AEEC datalink system subcommittee meeting and users’ forums. I participate a lot in those industry activities. We're currently working on the VDL Mode 2 MASP and MOPS updates to achieve the short-term EASA improvements. Due to the performance issues in Europe, there was a major study to try to determine how to improve the performance, so it would be up to an acceptable level for both controllers and flight crews, and short-term recommendations and longer-term recommendations came out of that study. The group is currently in the process of releasing updated standards to achieve the short-term objectives.
I would probably say maybe 70 or 75% of my time is focused on external things: industry activities, customer support; a majority of it in the last six months has been on the industry activity support because there's been a lot of changes going on in the industry. That's through providing input to draft advisory circulars or supporting input into the EASA as certification.
What stands out as the most fun or interesting project you’ve worked on? Stories?
There have been two that really stand out. The first was designing a custom interface and protocol with the airborne telephone systems back in the late 90s to provide weather graphics up to the flight deck—composite radar, satellite images, winds aloft.
What sticks out is that airborne telephone systems hadn't been used for the transmission of large graphical map type data before, so we had to do a lot of prototyping and experimenting to ensure that the road of the protocol was robust and could handle the temporary drop-outs it would experience as it was flying. It was just because it was custom and never done before; there were no industry standards. There were no lessons learned. So we had to do all of that ourselves and it was just really rewarding to create something from scratch and have it all come together so quickly.
The other one, there was an airline—Air Nova at the time, they’re now Air Canada Jazz. They had never done ACARS before, but they were interested in adding ACARS to their flight operations, so I worked very closely with both the chief pilot and people within their flight operations to design an ACARS system with them from scratch. Instead of a regional airline that might want to tie into an existing parent airline’s already-existing ACARS system and just matching that functionality, we actually had the freedom to design specifically what the airline wanted to make their operations as efficient as possible. I learned a lot about at least one individual airline’s operation, and I really enjoyed seeing the customer satisfaction with the end product.
What do you do outside of UASC? What are your hobbies?
I spend a lot of time with my husband who's a member of the Seattle Cossacks motorcycle stunt drill team, a team that's been around since the 1930s. They ride and do stunts and drills on antique Harley motorcycles, so I travel with him to a lot of shows; I'm their kind of unofficial photographer. I also like photography. Kind of a second family. And I like getting a little bit crazy with some of my friends where we do a yearly scavenger hunt called GISHWHES—just GISH this year.
Does your job and background as an engineer bleed into your day-to-day life?
I think it happened naturally because the reason I'm in the career that I'm in is because of the way I am and that doesn't change just because I'm at home.
My husband is also an engineer; an aeronautical engineer at Boeing. The motorcycle stunt drill team that he is on, part of that is maintaining their own motorcycles. He also restores motorcycles so when he's working on a project, occasionally he'll say “Well, how would you approach doing this?” Oh, well, we'll discuss it together just like any engineering team would.
So, there isn't anything specific. It's not like I'm trying to build an ACARS transceiver in the backyard or have an antenna on my roof to snoop in on all the aircraft traffic or things along those lines. But, engineering and organized thought and problem solving are just part of who I am. I can't escape that.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.