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Originally published April 3, 2011 at 10:01 PM | Page modified June 28, 2011 at 11:12 AM

In Person: Boeing's Nicole Piasecki — born into aerospace engineering

Nicole Piasecki, head of strategic analysis at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, grew up with a blue-blood aviation background and is now grappling with key decisions as the company studies its future airplane programs.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Nicole Piasecki

Vice president of business development and strategic integration at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Education: B.S. in mechanical engineering from Yale. MBA from Wharton. Played lacrosse and hockey at Yale, where she was female athlete of the year.

At Boeing: Joined Boeing in 1992 as a 777 engineer. Named to current position in January 2010 after stints heading aircraft-leasing sales, marketing and Boeing Japan.

Family: Piasecki is 48 and has three children. Her husband, Peter Heymann, also an engineer by training, now does pastoral work with prison inmates and the homeless.

Source: Nicole Piasecki

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Nicole Piasecki was practically groomed from birth for the role she now plays at Boeing Commercial Airplanes: heading the strategic-analysis team that's grappling with key decisions as the company considers what its next new jet it should be.

"I really entered the industry when I was about 4 years old," said Piasecki (pronounced Pie-a-SECK-ee). "We grew up completely around helicopters, vertical flight, every air show."

At one birthday party at her Philadelphia home when she was about 10, she recalled, "I couldn't understand why the parents of my friends were sticking around." Now the reason seems obvious: "We were giving helicopter rides in the backyard."

Piasecki's mother, Vivian O'Gara Weyerhaeuser, came from the wealthy timber family. Her father, Frank Piasecki, invented the twin- rotor helicopter that later evolved into the U.S. Army's heavy-lift Chinook.

His first company, Piasecki Helicopter, later became Boeing's rotorcraft plant in Philadelphia, where Boeing's defense division today builds Chinooks and V-22 tilt-rotor Ospreys. Frank regularly took the kids to his engineering office and on trips to see customers or to visit military officials at the Pentagon.

"I lived in another world ... I was growing up not the way other people grew up," his daughter said.

Today, four of her six siblings also work in aviation.

After stints at Piasecki Aircraft and Weyerhaeuser, Nicole, 48, started at Boeing as an engineer on the 777 program in 1992. She is now vice president of business development and strategic integration.

Despite Boeing's many current challenges, Piasecki said the company is in much better shape than a decade ago, when then-Commercial Airplanes chief Alan Mulally tapped her to run marketing.

In an interview at her Renton office, she recalled that back then many people in the industry were questioning Boeing's commitment to the airliner business.

Then the Sept. 11 attacks staggered the aviation business, and management cut production in half. Boeing subsequently abandoned its plan to develop the superfast Sonic Cruiser jet.

"Those were pretty tough years," Piasecki said. "We really rallied to bring Boeing back."

Piasecki recalled helping plot the company's next step. Along with chief engineer Walt Gillette, she led a key meeting at the Bell Harbor conference center on Seattle's waterfront in October 2002.

A couple dozen airline representatives each got up and put a mark on a whiteboard to indicate whether they'd prefer Boeing's next plane to be faster or more fuel-efficient.

All opted for fuel efficiency — and the die was cast for what became the 787 Dreamliner.

Now Piasecki is playing a pivotal role in Boeing's decision on the next new airplane.

While rival Airbus has already moved to put new, more efficient engines on its narrow-body A320 aircraft, Boeing is considering a successor jet to the Renton-built 737 narrow-body.

The momentous choice will require investing gigantic sums, picking among key technology alternatives, deploying vast engineering and manufacturing resources, and establishing partnerships that will work better than the 787's troublesome supply chain.

Because the Chinese and Russians, as well as the Canadians and Brazilians, also plan to enter the narrow-body market, Piasecki sees this as "a real turning point for us."

Her job is to shape, guide and integrate the overall strategy, including where to fit in development of other jets such as a new Dreamliner derivative, the 787-10.

"We've got to make moves at certain times," Piasecki said. "Our resources are not endless. We have to make choices."

That's daunting enough even without the awkward fact that some of Boeing's strategic moves in the past decade — which Piasecki had a hand in — now look questionable.

Boeing's leadership has conceded that the wholesale outsourcing of work on the Dreamliner program was handled badly. The debacle has trashed the company's stellar reputation for delivering on time and has cost the company billions of dollars.

Piasecki, on the inner leadership team since 2001, says Boeing has learned a lot from those mistakes.

"We've had our troubles for sure on the 787," Piasecki said. "But we feel that because of that experience we are ahead in certain technologies."

On the next airplane, and even on the next derivative of the 787, she said, Boeing will keep key expertise in-house.

"We need to be very strategic ... and recognize the capabilities where we believe we are better than anyone else in the world.," Piasecki said. "We need to preserve those capabilities and invest in them."

Still, that revisionism doesn't mean the end of outsourcing.

"It doesn't mean the walls of Boeing are in Puget Sound only. It doesn't mean the walls of Boeing are in the United States only," Piasecki said. "We have to be able to work with the best partners around the world."

Piasecki said Boeing will strive for a more exclusive relationship with future partners, suggesting that those who also do work for rivals like Airbus may lose favor.

"Some of our very close suppliers are spending a lot of time developing stuff for other competitors. They are spending resources on others, not on us," she said. "We'd prefer that they work with us, and ... share and invest in technology for our advantage."

Yet Piasecki was on Mulally's leadership team when it decided in 2004 to sell off Boeing's major parts plant in Wichita, Kan.

That facility, later renamed Spirit AeroSystems, remains the main supplier for Boeing's narrow-body jets. But Spirit is now also a key supplier to Airbus and is building a plant in North Carolina that will make carbon-fiber plastic-composite fuselage panels for the A350, a rival to both the 787 and the 777.

In hindsight, was selling off Wichita a mistake?

Piasecki considered her answer for a long moment, pausing a conversation that was otherwise a fluid mix of lively, confident answers and occasional playful banter.

Finally she acknowledged, as her boss Jim Albaugh did recently, that Boeing's leadership at the time was very focused on shrinking in-house assets to boost Wall Street's assessment of company profitability.

Then she briskly moved on, saying she won't "second-guess decisions that have already been made."

How Spirit and the other partners fit into the next new airplane's supply chain will be critical to the Puget Sound region, the center of Boeing's airplane business since 1916.

Piasecki said Boeing is studying the possibility of a high-volume aircraft production supersite, where supplier fabrication plants making airplane sections would cluster near a Boeing final-assembly facility.

She said if Boeing chooses that route, it may set up more than one such supersite to mitigate the risk of having such a key complex subject to disruption by a natural disaster or a labor strike.

"We're taking a look at all different scenarios," Piasecki said. "We are coming up on our 100th birthday. We want to reposition for the next 100 years."

The Piasecki family dynasty might even have a role in that next century. Would she be pleased if any of her three kids, ages 11, 9 and 4, go into aviation?

"I would love it," Piasecki said. "Both my husband and I are engineers. I can tell we are shaping them to think engineering."

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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