Kitty O’Brien Joyner
Though powered flight started with the Wright Brothers in North Carolina, by the beginning of World War I, the U.S. lagged behind Europe in airplane technology. On March 3, 1915, Congress founded the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics or NACA to bridge the gap. The organization would later become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Initially, NACA was tasked with coordinating efforts that were already underway across the nation. However, its mission and workforce soon grew to cover a greater role in aeronautics research in the U.S. Research in the 1910s and 1920s included flight tests and streamlining studies. NACA began to hit its stride in the 1930s, when the threat of a new world war forced rapid development and testing of new aircraft.
In 1939, Kitty O’Brien became the first female engineer hired by NACA. She was an electrical engineer who had just become the first woman to complete her degree in electrical engineering from the University of Virginia. It was “the opportunity of a lifetime to explore an exciting new world.” In and after World War II, while women all over the world were rolling up their sleeves and entering formerly male-dominated roles, Kitty helped to reshape the Langley aeronautical laboratory. She managed several wind tunnels, including supersonic wind tunnels, which are critical for testing new aircraft design on the ground before it goes into flight. These wind tunnels helped to rapidly advance aeronautics for the military and commercial applications, and eventually even helped evolve Space Shuttles. She also helped define the standards for modern aircraft. She worked for NACA and later NASA for several decades and it was at NACA that she met Upshur Joyner, a physicist who would become her husband.
O’Brien-Joyner was a member of the IEEE, an Honorary Life Member of the Engineers Club of the Virginia Peninsula, and member Daughters of the American Revolution. She and her husband had two children and she died in 1993.
Written by Nicole Hutchison