Working on a third career as a sculptor, Lt. Colonel Arminta J. Harness closed a 30-year career in engineering when she resigned in 1979 from her position as Manager of Laboratory Planning, Hanford Engineering Development Laboratory, operated by the Westinghouse Hanford Company, Richland, Washington. In this position, she was responsible for directing the development of strategic and operational long-range plans for the nuclear development laboratory. She was previously Technical Assistant to the President, Westinghouse Hanford Company.
Born in Oilton, Oklahoma, she graduated from high school in Owensboro, Kentucky. After two years at Lindenwood College for Women, St. Charles, Missouri, she enrolled at the University of Southern California, where she received her Bachelor of Engineering degree in Aeronautical Engineering. Her later education included graduate work in engineering management at the same university and numerous technical and system program management courses.
Colonel Harness joined Westinghouse Hanford Company in July 1974 following retirement from military service. As the first woman engineer to join the United States Air Force, she was in the unique position of trailblazer during the 24 years of her military career — rising in rank from Second Lieutenant to Lieutenant Colonel.
Her Air Force assignments included duty as a photographic and weather reconnaissance project engineer, deputy chief of engineering and then as chief of program control for the target vehicle portion of the Gemini manned space program, and as a research and development director for a national intelligence organization. Her military responsibilities varied from designing intelligence-gathering equipment for the U-2 aircraft to providing management direction for the $2 billion Space and Missile Systems Organization budget.
In addition to her pioneering assignments in engineering and R&D management, Colonel Harness established several other “firsts” in the Air Force. She was the first woman on orders as a test engineer during flight testing of the experimental equipment. She was the first woman to receive the specialty rating of Staff Development Engineer, and she was the first woman to be awarded both the Senior and Master Missileman Badges. In February 1972, she became the first woman to serve as Chairman for all Engineers Week activities in Los Angeles — coordinating the activities of 30 engineering societies and representing over 30,000 engineers. She remains the only woman engineer to have held this position.
Ms. Harness is a past president of the Los Angeles Club of Zonta International, a Fellow of the Institute for the Advancement of Engineering, is listed in Who’s Who in Engineering, and holds many other military and engineering honors and memberships. This is what Minta has to say about becoming an engineer and joining the Air Force. “Like many young girls in the 1930’s, Amelia Earhart was my idol. (I was nine when she went down in the Pacific.) Her three books, Twenty Hours and Forty Minutes, The Fun of It and Last Flight, gave me both enjoyment and inspiration through the years. An autographed copy of The Fun of It remains one of my prized possessions.
“I made my decision to become an aeronautical engineer in my sophomore year in high school — based upon the advice in Amelia’s books, plus my love of both math and flying. I fell in love with flying at age three when I saw my first airplane and its “barnstorming” pilot at a field near Amarillo, Texas. Years later, I earned my own pilot’s license — a few years before I could drive. Unfortunately, deteriorating eyesight many years ago put an end to my flying days.
“The decision to join the Air Force right out of college was a direct result of the times in which I lived. World War II started my freshman year in high school and ended following my graduation. As a result, almost all of my college classmates were veterans of that war. Having heard all of their war stories while in school, I felt almost as if I had been one of them. Later, when job hunting in southern California, I was told time and time again, ‘As long as a returning GI needs a job, we’re not about to hire a woman!’ And so I decided to join the Air Force to get some engineering experience — never expected to make it a career. “Because I really loved my life in the Air Force, I had not expected to retire after only 24 years. It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make: stay in with an almost sure promotion to Colonel, but no more national offices in SWE, retire, work in industry and become President of SWE. I loved my two years as Carolyn Phillips’ Vice President and my two years as SWE President that followed. But I have to admit — when I see the advancements for Air Force women that took place during that same time period and those that have followed — I do have a touch of envy! “Finally, my motto in life is a quote from a letter sent by Amelia Earhart to her husband; a letter to be read if it proved to be her ‘Last Flight’: ‘I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.’ ”
- B.E. in Aeronautical Engineering, 19xx, University of Southern California
- Fellow Life Member of SWE