Lily Arcusa’s unconventional story as a mother and engineer for the United States Air Force spans over three children, two decades and an unparalleled amount of dedication. She is an example to women that motherhood and a successful career can be accomplished, and a role model to anybody who doesn’t fit the engineer stereotype but nonetheless is passionate about it.
Arcusa graduated from U-M Aerospace in 2003 and immediately started working at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where she began her distinguished career in the USAF and shortly thereafter started her masters in engineering management at the University of Dayton. However, before becoming such an accomplished engineer, Arcusa was first a not-so-decided student.
Like many Aerospace students, Arcusa didn’t have this career path in mind when she started at U-M. Although she enjoyed mathematics and was a declared math major at LSA, she could not picture a future in math. While she was trying to decide what to do, she took a pause after her sophomore year, during which she got married and had her first daughter.
Once her daughter was born, Arcusa felt a deep desire to have the most successful career possible.
“She was my entire motivation,” she said. “Being able to provide for her was just something I had to do.”
So she returned to school fully decided to get into engineering. Although she was an LSA student, the engineering school let her take a few classes, where she demonstrated that although she had been in the liberal arts college and had just taken a year off, she was committed to her studies.
She lived in the family housing on North Campus and walked to classes every day. She had a second daughter before her senior year and took both girls with her to the FXB computer lab sometimes. And it was all worth it for her because her education at U-M prepared her for her amazing career.
“What I really learned at U-M was the communication aspect of engineering. We did a lot of teamwork in my design classes, and those were all extremely similar to my real work… When I started my career, I felt that I was comfortable with what was happening, and that I had gotten a good preview of it all in my classes.”
Arcusa also highlights the critical thinking abilities U-M equipped her with.
“I don’t always know what the analysis should look like. But I do know how to ask the right questions, and I think I got that out of my education at U-M,” she said.
After one year of training in the USAF, Arcusa began working in the cargo plane C-17 Globemaster program office. In this role, she was responsible for the engines, engine installation and thrust reversers, and now a third daughter at home. Six years later she was transferred to the F-22 Fighter program office. There, she worked the environmental control systems, the bleed air systems off the engines and life support systems. At the time, many pilots were experiencing hypoxia symptoms in flight, which is a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues, so Arcusa led an investigation into what was causing these symptoms for three years before getting promoted into the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program office.
In this new position, Arcusa was the lead of all the subsystems, adding to her list of responsibilities fuel systems, electrical systems and landing gear. She spent another three years in this role until she began her work in the KC-46 tanker program, which at the time was fairly new, with only a couple of test aircrafts built. In this program, Arcusa was responsible for all the subsystems plus the airframe and flight controls. This was an amazing experience for her, getting to witness the construction of a brand-new aircraft and getting it through flight test.
However, a year into this role, her old boss’ position in the F-35 opened up and she got promoted to be the flight systems lead there. Her tenure there was short as the Air Force developed a Rapid Sustainment Office meant to rapidly provide new technology into the sustainment enterprise (things like 3D printing and robotics), and asked Arcusa to create and lead the engineering team.
In this role, Arcusa was also tasked with creating the Additive Manufacturing Olympics, a competitive event for companies to come in and show the Air Force what they could do in these sustainment areas.
Shortly after, Arcusa was promoted to the Presidential and Executive Directorate as the Director of Engineering, where her team manages three fleets: the current Air Force One that flies today, all of what are called the “blue and white” aircrafts, meaning the executive airlifts of the Vice President, First Lady, Secretary of Defense and the like, and the E-4B also known as the Doomsday Plane, which is the plane that has nuclear command, control and communications.
Currently, Arcusa’s team is building a new Air Force One in Texas and replacing the Doomsday Plane with a program called the Survivable Airborne Operations Center. Today, she is the Deputy Program Executive Officer responsible for more than 400 people.
However, before this illustrious career, there was a time when she experienced a lot of self-doubt.
“I felt like a bit of a fraud when I first started. There were all these other guys who had been working on their cars their whole lives or had been to the NASA Space Camp or had a private pilot’s license. I was a ballet dancer and marching band kid who really enjoyed engineering.”
But she never let that fear stop her.
“There are all kinds of engineers. You don’t have to have grown up building Legos or taking apart your computer or coding in your spare time. It’s more about the thinking style than the pedigree of having these stereotypical things in your background.”
Her advice to Aero students, particularly female students, is to have confidence in yourself.
“I graduated with a pretty low GPA. I was worried about that, but you have your own strengths, and they are absolutely vital to any team that you’re going to work on, in any place that you’re going to go work. U-M helped equip me for this.” Arcusa stays connected to U-M Aerospace. She recently spoke at the annual Women in Aeronautics and Astronautics conference, sharing her career experience and advice with students, faculty, and industry leaders.