Anita L. VanBarneveld has no more than ten seconds to pass the 175-gram plastic disk to the next player. She’s not allowed to run, only pivot. Just like the ball in American football, the flying disk must make it to the opposing team’s end zone through a series of skillful passes. VanBarneveld was good enough to make the German national ultimate frisbee squad.
That VanBarneveld competes in what would have to be counted as a fringe sport somehow fits with her career path. Never really one for taking the road most traveled, she was one of only a handful of women in her native Ottawa at the time to study aerospace engineering. After a few years working in the industry in Canada, she felt she was bound for bigger things. Fairchild-Dornier in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany, was hiring. At first, this little place southwest of Munich took some finding on the map. “My boyfriend and I thought it looked like a pretty place and decided to go and spend a couple of years there.” It’s now been 15 years since leaving Canada, even though—or perhaps because—Fairchild Dornier filed for bankruptcy in 2002.
From aircraft to engine in 20 kilometers
VanBarneveld then heard from a friend that their company was looking for someone with precisely her credentials. The company in question was MTU Aero Engines, located in the northwest of Munich, just 20 kilometers from Oberpfaffenhofen— “perfect.” It wasn’t long before VanBarneveld was calculating the rigidity of blades for business jet engines at MTU. Then another piece of the puzzle fell into place: “MTU was manufacturing these engines in collaboration with Pratt & Whitney Canada—familiar territory for me.”
From there on in, her work took on a whole new dimension. She helped develop the low-pressure turbine for the Airbus A380’s GP7000 engine. Once that engine was up and running, she switched roles to and become the module team leader, for the team which was developing the GEnx turbine center frame for the Dreamliner and the 747-8. After that, she took up her present position as head of the low-pressure turbine module team for the PW800 family. That appointment brought her full circle: the PW800 is the successor to precisely the business jet applications for which VanBarneveld calculated blade rigidities at the start of her MTU career.
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Dream views and daycare
At Fairchild-Dornier, English was the company language. This had both advantages and disadvantages. “Back then, my German didn’t extend much beyond ‘ein Bier bitte!’” And since the move to MTU meant she wouldn’t be returning to Canada in the foreseeable future, VanBarneveld made a strict pact with her colleagues to try and speak only German. As is usual in such situations, it was a tough at first because her colleagues stuck to the plan. But over time, language skills become more assured; now VanBarneveld says that for her, speaking German is like slipping into a comfortable pair of shoes.
The VanBarnevelds’ quality of life in Munich has always had a lot to do with where the city lies. Like a great many people who choose to live in the area, they enjoy having the Alps at their front door. “We’re always up for a bit of climbing, hiking or biking at the weekend.” And now with two sons aged two and three, it’s fun for all the family. “But none of this would work without having every day planned out.” Dream views are one thing, but everyone needs support they can count on.
Take the “TurBienchen”—a parents’ initiative that runs a daycare center not 50 meters from the front gates of MTU’s headquarters in Munich. In keeping with the German play on the words for turbine and bee, the mascot is a bee in a turbine costume. “Apart from when it gets really cold in winter, twice a week I load the kids into the bike trailer in the morning and get to work that way.”
Building bridges becomes routine
The final leg of the commute is through the showers. A 10-kilometer ride pulling two kids is quite a workout, even for an accomplished sportswoman. Sometimes, the boys get a ride home in the car with their father, allowing their mother to work longer. “It’s rare that I have any appointments with Pratt & Whitney Canada before 2 p.m.” Our colleagues in Canada are six hours behind Germany. This means that VanBarneveld’s daily routine is one of building bridges—between Europe and North America, work and family, free time and planned time.
None of this would work without the support of management, which first had to consider if a young woman from Canada would make a good addition to the team. The first pregnancy was closely followed by a second. “Management found a way for me to come back to work for the four-month period between my maternity leaves so I could remain in the loop.” Where there’s a will, there’s a way. “At the end of the day, it’s a question of mindset—and MTU has the right one.”
It will be time for the next organizational reshuffle in another three or four years, when her older son starts school. Although this new family dynamic will not make things any less complicated, VanBarneveld has found a silver lining: “At least then I can look over his shoulder when he’s doing his homework and finally learn how German grammar really works.”
Thorsten Rienth, writes as a freelance journalist for AEROREPORT. In addition to the aerospace industry, his technical writing focuses on rail traffic and the transportation industry.