Women Civil Engineers Making History with the Tyndall Rebuild

  • Published
  • By Christine Alombro Walker
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

When Category 5 Hurricane Michael struck Tyndall Air Force Base in 2018, it destroyed more than half of the facilities across the installation. Knowing the importance of Tyndall’s mission and its geographical location, the decision was made to rebuild, and through the rubble, the installation of the future began to take shape. Throughout the rebuild process, female engineers have played an important role in the massive rebuild process. These women are integral to the $5 billion transformation of Tyndall into the Installation of the Future.


An early leader of the Tyndall rebuild was now-retired Brig. Gen. Patrice Melançon. She was assigned as the mobilization assistant to the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center commander. In the days following the disaster, she was asked to return to active duty and served as the executive director of the Program Management Office, now known as the Natural Disaster Recovery Division of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center.

“It was really kind of mind-blowing, looking at the hangar and seeing big sections of the outer covering peeled away,” explained Melançon. “The CE squadron building on the flight line looked like a bomb went off. You can’t even wrap your mind around the level of destruction,” she said.

Melançon considers herself very fortunate that senior Air Force leaders had confidence in her ability to take on the once-in-a-lifetime mission to “build a base from scratch.”

According to the United States Census Bureau, only 13 percent of engineers in the U.S. are women, perhaps making the engineering career field the most male-dominated profession in the U.S. today. At the Natural Disaster Recovery Division, it’s not much different, where male engineers outnumber women 10 to 1. 

“Luckily, I listened to my parents and majored in civil engineering,” reflected Melançon. There were only three women in her 1988 civil engineer graduating class. Women have been in the Air Force civil engineer career field since 1971. But with more women entering engineering, the gender disparity is now “less pronounced,” said Melançon.


Another one of those women is Judy Biddle. As the Execution Branch chief of the Natural Disaster Recovery Division, she oversees 12 construction zones across Tyndall. That equates to 44 projects, consisting of 120 buildings. Additionally, she provides oversight to 13 projects at flood-damaged Offutt AFB, Nebraska and three projects at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virgina.

“It has been a great experience for me,” said Biddle. The teamwork in the Execution Branch makes her colleagues more like “a supportive family” than co-workers. “It doesn’t seem like a job to me,” she said.

Biddle began her Air Force career as a firefighter almost 30 years ago. Balancing family life and a deployed spouse, she earned an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and a graduate degree in fire protection engineering. She served as an Air Force fire protection engineer, fire inspector and deputy fire marshal for the State of Alaska.

As an Air Force civil engineer, she conducted fire safety design reviews and building inspections, became a hangar fire protection inspection expert, and even helped rewrite National Fire Protection Association policy.

“In our engineering world, I advocate for changes that make sense for the people doing the work,” said Biddle. Making the most efficient and effective changes in a team environment is important to getting “facilities built the right way,” she said.


Though 1st Lt. Colleen Kuykendall, Natural Disaster Recovery Division project manager, was not present to experience the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Michael, she recalls how everyone banded together to commit to rebuilding Tyndall.

She was selected in 2020 for the Tyndall Hands program. The program allows newly commissioned civil engineers to experience challenges usually encountered later in their careers. Their first assignment to support the rebuild fits that bill.

“The lessons, partnerships, and experiences I have gained working on such a large scale, a multibillion-dollar military construction project, would take an entire career to replicate,” said Kuykendall. “I’m happy to say I have played a role.”


Sandra Buckley-Rusnov, AFCEC Natural Disaster Recovery Division, Project Manager, is another female engineer making an impact at the NDR. With degrees in architecture and civil engineering, she manages projects totaling more than $1 billion, including three MILCONS at Joint Base Langley-Eustis.

“Historically, there were few women in the engineering fields, but now women are highly respected and valued,” said Buckley-Rusnov. “A civil engineering education opens a path to many careers.”

“My 25 years of experience and education are multi-disciplined, allowing me to engage at all levels of projects with the multitude of different stakeholders,” said Buckley-Rusnov. She recently took her talents to a new stakeholder, Andersen AFB, Guam. She deployed to help the base recover after Typhoon Mawar battered it with 140 mph winds and 28 inches of rain. 


Mary Rutland, AFCEC Natural Disaster Recovery Division, Project Manager was led to the NDR by Hurricane Michael. The storm’s destruction created an opportunity for the young engineer. Prior to the storm, she was participating in an unpaid engineering internship and working in a restaurant to make ends meet.

“When I first onboarded as a contractor, there were only seven of us in the Execution Branch,” said Rutland. “At the time, I was the only female.”

Rutland manages four construction zones including nine military construction projects. She and her engineer support team identify conflicts and recommend solutions. She communicates with as many as 20 project stakeholders daily, and several hundred monthly.

“I manage expectations, risks, and uncertainties, which involves balancing cost schedule, other area activities, and Air Force expectations versus what the contractor, the construction agent and the construction manager understand,” explained Rutland.

Rutland’s list of facilities near completion includes three at the Silver Flag Exercise Site. The fire and emergency technical training facility, the vehicle maintenance facility, and the civil engineer operations storage building were all turned over to the user this year.

“It is phenomenal, I love my job, I love my career field,” said Rutland. “I am always reminded exactly why I got into this and feel rewarded.” Rutland recently passed the professional engineer exam in construction management and will be adding “licensed PE” to her credentials.


Managing the Air Force’s largest MILCON award in history is Melissa Lewis, AFCEC Natural Disaster Recovery Division, project manager. As the civil engineer project manager for the F-35 complex, known as Zone 1, she oversees the $604 million design-bid-build contract that will deliver 12 buildings, six hangars, a parking apron and support facilities for the F-35.

“I was a little intimidated in the beginning when I was first hired,” said Lewis. She spent 12 years working in a Civil Engineer squadron and came with high recommendations, and again proved herself by teaming with support engineers and fostering “a great working relationship” with the contractor and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said Lewis.

Lewis was the first in her family to go to college. She is a civil engineer thanks to a high school teacher who shared the possibilities of a career in civil engineering. These days, she interfaces with almost 500 people via monthly meetings and manages the moving pieces of construction activity alongside operational F- 35s.

“When exercises like Checkered Flag take place it can get chaotic,” said Lewis. “Communication is key when they bring 1,200 extra people to the zone.” Lewis and her team must manage the Zone 1 construction projects within the fence line while managing traffic flow in and around the site to ensure contractor deliveries are safe and on time.

“I’m excited to be a part of Tyndall’s history and to say, ‘We did that,’” said Lewis. “We as female engineers at the NDR did all that in a predominantly male engineering world.”