Published by Tom Thinnes on Fri, Mar 30, 2018
“Space: the final frontier.” For many, these famous words echoed out of television and movie screens, providing viewers the opportunity to passively engage in outer space exploits. For some, the words acted as a magnet, drawing the individuals towards the human quest to explore and colonize the space immediately beyond Earth’s atmosphere. For Margo Vriesinga, the call of the final frontier would come after a journey that took her from cars to complex jet engines to Virgin Galactic!
Growing up in Farmington, MI, Vriesinga’s “drive” usually revolved around vehicles with four wheels that never left the ground. “Originally, my interest was focused on cars and high school auto shop,” she recalled. “So, when time came to apply to college, I did not really have a direction.” Fortunately, Vriesinga had a very keen sense of detail. While examining the list of over 150 undergraduate majors offered at Western Michigan University, something stuck out. “When I looked at WMUs list of majors,” she said, “aviation maintenance caught my eye and I never looked back.”
Graduating from Farmington High School in 2013, Vriesinga blasted off for Kalamazoo, MI to pursue a degree in aviation maintenance technology. The program, now called aviation technical operations, provides students the opportunity to blend academic requirements with technical competencies. Students in the WMU program not only earn their Bachelor of Science degree in technical operations, they also obtain the skills necessary to test for the airframe and powerplant certificate issued by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Just like the majority of students in the Tech Ops curriculum, Vriesinga had a favorite class. While most enjoy the academic and theory portion, their true love usually resides in the hands-on portion. Vriesinga fell right into this paradigm. “My favorite class at Western?” she thought. “That is easy. It was engine overhaul. I have always enjoyed engine work. As part of the class, I was lucky enough to perform a complete overhaul on an engine, more or less on my own.”
In addition to possessing the passion, Vriesinga also encountered the human element in her quest to pursue a degree in aviation technical operations: dedicated and committed WMU College of Aviation faculty. “My favorite instructors at WMU were Jeremy Hierholzer and Terry Michmerhuizen. However, I also have a special place for Blair Balden,” she said. “Both Mr. Hierholzer and Mr. Michmerhuizen always believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself or had lost my drive. However, I also really appreciate Mr. Balden. He definitely cared about me, and my well-being. I was in the hospital and he reached out to make sure I was all right – even though I hadn’t been in a class of his for nearly a year. That meant a lot to me and showed how much he cared.”
Any journey, especially one to outer space, can be fraught with challenges and speed bumps. For Vriesinga, the challenge came from the inside. Looking back, she said, “My biggest challenge in school was being too proud. I didn’t like to admit when I was wrong or didn’t know something, and struggled admitting it to myself and others.” Fortunately, a number of WMU faculty members helped Vriesinga to address this. “Both Mr. Hierholzer and Mr. Mitch were willing to call me out when my pride got the better of me,” she recalled.
In addition to faculty, Vriesinga also was fortunate enough to have professionals in the industry who were instrumental in helping to overcome this challenge. “As I entered the industry,” she stated, “I was fortunate to work with patient people who were passionate about their work and were willing to lend a hand. Overall, I feel that helped humble me, especially since aviation is a constant learning environment which requires everyone to share information and expertise.”
Finishing her degree in 2017, Vriesinga headed off to the wild blue yonder … at first. Spending time as an intern at Stryker Medical’s corporate flight department, she had the opportunity to help their aviation maintenance department keep the corporate jet of this Fortune 500 Company operational. However, the wild blue would soon be changed to the vacuum of space.
Currently, Vriesinga works for Virgin Galactic and is a Space Wrench on WhiteKnightTwo (the carrier aircraft) and SpaceShipTwo (the reusable, winged spacecraft). Living in Lancaster, California, which is on the north edge of Los Angeles, Vriesinga makes the commute to the spaceport located in Mojave, California. Said Vriesinga, “The current test site is in the middle of the desert and the town is nearly non-existent. In addition, the spaceport is just north of Edward’s Air Force Base, which has a lot of sonic booms. Therefore, it makes sense to live somewhere quieter.”
Working at Virgin Galactic is a dream job for many people. For Vriesinga, not only is it a dream, it is one she loves due to the daily challenges.” When I started at Virgin Galactic, we were undergoing a large modification process and making many big changes to our space ship,” she said. “The company has extended a great deal of trust in the maintenance team, allowing a lot of judgment calls to be made from the shop floor, followed up by engineers for formal documentation. Additionally, I have fabricated parts for the next two space ships, which are currently in production. This is amazing, especially since I never anticipated being in manufacturing. Currently the company is working with the FAA to write the future laws of commercial space travel.” No wonder there is such a fondness for the job!
However, executing operations for the final frontier can be difficult. Technical operation departments that stay within the confines of our atmosphere have the benefits of existing manuals and established practices. For “space wrenchers” like Vriesinga, most of what they do is a product of synthesis – creating new techniques and strategies. Said Vriesinga, “A lot of our work is based on judgments made on the fly, working collaboratively with engineering. Since we don’t have a lot of technical data, we must rely on new thought processes which are based on system standards and the FAA regulations dealing with acceptable methods, techniques and practices for large aircraft inspection and repair (AC43.13). This also requires the ability to test for new standards and efficiency practices.”
Ultimately, the payoff is worth the work. Hands down, when asked what her favorite memory of work is, Vriesinga exalts, “My first time launching Space Ship 2!” Even though the event required arriving to work at 2 a.m., Vriesinga fondly remembers watching the fruits of her labor take off, heading for the final frontier. However, she would be remiss if she didn’t mention the Mooney. “Reassembling the Mooney and running it for the first time at WMU was pretty fun too.” We’ll take second!
Looking towards the future, Vriesinga has set her focus on additional responsibilities and challenges. “Long term,” she said, “I hope to become a crew chief of one of the upcoming space ships that are in production. Possibly, at some point, I would be interested in utilizing my F35 lift fan and turbine training in a more active situation.”
While looking forward, Vriesinga also has words of wisdom for those looking to enter the industry. “Try it. It can’t hurt to try it. Go to A&P school, make mistakes, try something that makes you uncomfortable and just see how many places you can go. There’s a whole world out there.” For Vriesinga, it just isn’t the world; it’s the whole Universe!