Nelda K. Lee
Trailblazer Aerospace Engineer
Inducted in 2016
During the course of her impressive career, Nelda K. Lee made a remarkable and enduring contribution to the field of aeronautics and aviation. Remembered as a trailblazing aerospace engineer, she is a role model, inspirational leader and mentor to women pursuing engineering careers.
Raised on a farm in Aliceville, Alabama, Lee followed her father’s legacy to study engineering at Auburn University. While earning a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, she completed elective courses to earn her private pilot’s license. In 1969, she became the second woman to graduate from Auburn with a degree in aerospace engineering.
After graduation, she began a prominent career with Heritage McDonnell Douglas Co., now part of Boeing Co. She joined the company as an associate engineer at a time when few women worked in the aviation industry. Her exemplary work and excellent engineering skills earned her respect, and over the course of more than four decades, her roles and responsibilities steadily increased.
Within eight years of graduation, Lee had earned a commercial pilot’s license, rated for instruments and multi-engine aircraft, and was rated to fly helicopters. She was instrumental in the design, development and testing of a number of aircraft during her career, and was the first woman to work on the flight test engineering team at her company. She was integral to the test engineering of the F-15, the U.S. Air Force’s premier tactical combat aircraft. Besides working on material and mechanical engineering components of the jet, Lee is the first woman to fly an F-15, logging more than an hour during testing.
She continued to work on integrated defense systems and fighter jets for McDonnell Douglas and then Boeing. In 2009, she was assigned senior manager for the Test and Evaluation Business division, overseeing flight and ground test teams. In 2014, she retired from Boeing.
In retirement and throughout her career, Lee has advocated for women in the aerospace industry. She is a charter member of the board of directors for Women in Aviation, International. She was international president of the Whirly-Girls, Inc., an organization of women helicopter pilots. Also, she served as the governor and international officer of the organization of women pilots, the Ninety-Nines, Inc. Dedicated to helping young women pursue engineering, Lee is part of Samuel Ginn College of Engineering’s 100 Women Strong program.
She has also served as president of the St. Louis chapter of the Society of Flight Test Engineers and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Her numerous professional recognitions include induction into the Women in Aviation International Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2004. She was awarded the Boeing Pride Award 13 times. She was selected for the Katherine & Marjorie Stinson Award for Achievement by the National Aeronautics Association in 2010, and was recognized by AIAA in 1978 with the Young Professional Award. In addition, Lee was recognized as an outstanding alumna by Auburn and Webster University in St. Louis, where she earned a master’s degree in human resource development in 1999.