Practitioner Profile: Tara M. Kavanaugh

 Tara M. Kavanaugh is the senior quality assurance administrator at Magellan Aerospace Processing. She became an ASNT NDT Level III in liquid penetrant testing at 23 years old, and is now also an ASNT NDT Level III in magnetic particle testing. She is also the secretary of the Metro NY/Northern New Jersey Section of ASNT. 

Q.  How did you begin your career in NDT?

A. It’s actually a funny story. One of my older cousins had a birthday BBQ, and her best friend was there who worked at a facility that did NDT work (I had no idea [what NDT was] at this point). She said they needed some secretarial help while they were updating the QA system and asked me if I was interested…being a high school student looking to make [some extra money], I said sure! My first day of my senior year was my first day at the job. By the time summer came and I had graduated [in 2000], I was asked to stay full-time, and by March 2001 I was certified as a Level II in PT and a couple years later certified in [magnetic particle testing]. Four years from that I became an ASNT NDT Level III in PT and appointed the Responsible Level III at 23 years old. I actually asked ASNT if I was the youngest to be certified, but they could not verify…I like to think I’m in the running! Who knew at 17 years old starting at this company would be the very start of my career!

Q.  Describe the work you do. What’s a typical workday?

A. Today my day is generally busy from the moment I walk in, between email replies to our customers regarding work status, to certifying completed jobs for pick-up or releasing newly delivered work to the floor for processing—it’s a fast-paced, nonstop environment. I hold several roles within the company, but my main purpose is managing the NDT/chem process department. The team consists of two inspectors and one production person; I also will help out on the floor when someone is out…so I do still get my hands dirty! I also do the contract review and certification sign-offs for all the processes we do here. 

Q   Is your work focused on a particular field? What are the most valuable methods in your job?

A. Our main focus of work is within the aerospace industry…mainly manufacturing, but we do some in-service work. But we are not mobile; customers ship us anything that needs inspection. We do several different special processes here—the main business was originally shot-peen, then a few years ago they added the NDT and chemical process department. The capabilities were fluorescent magnetic particle and penetrant inspections methods, nital/temper etch inspection, passivation, and pre-penetrant etch for aluminum. My new company does five methods of NDT, shot peening, etch of all materials, and various plating/painting operations, and our sister divisions are the manufacturers.

Q.  What kind of structures/materials are you testing? What kind of indications are you looking for?

A. We process a wide variety of parts. I have experience working for many different aerospace primes, like Boeing, Goodrich, Sikorsky/Lockheed, Grumman, and several military applications. For instance, we can have a flight safety part for an S-70 helicopter, a main landing gear trunnion for a C-17 aircraft, or a welded tie-down assembly that will be installed on an aircraft carrier. A lot of the time we are working on some very critical components, but we definitely have the opportunity to see a wide variety of work, which is great because it keeps us on our toes.

Q.  What’s been your most interesting/unusual application of NDT?

A. I have inspected an engine mount for a rocket ship. One of the first inspections I had experience with was the arresting hooks and tail hooks for the F-18. I did both the MT and PT inspection on thousands of them, and it was one of the first parts I had inspected that I actually knew what the application was for. (See, I was only an inspector—I have no experience in aerospace mechanics, so the parts were just metal shapes to me when I was first introduced to NDT.)

Q.  What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve experienced?

A. NADCAP audits … as much experience as you can gain, they are still very stressful to get through when it is your sole responsibility. One other challenge I had faced was developing and maintaining the NDT/chem department for my previous employer (Metal Improvement Co./Curtiss-Wright Surface Technologies). They were originally a shot peening facility and purchased the original company I worked at in order to add NDT capabilities to start the department that I managed. Those were some of the most stressful days I can recall….building an NDT/chem department from the ground up in a new location is not easy, and that was directly after becoming a new mom for the first time, nine years ago!

Q.  How has NDT changed during your career? What trends do you see?

A. When I started back in 2001, NADCAP was not a mandatory accreditation, so the addition of that to our industry has changed a lot with regard to the amount of paperwork and the check and balance systems. I have witnessed the transition first hand, and to maintain a NADCAP accreditation is certainly not an easy, run-of-the-mill task.

Q.  Can you tell us about your certification and training/education?

A. I am currently certified as an ASNT NDT Level III in both MT and PT. I have attended multiple training classes over the [last] 18 years with several different agencies. I have not had the pleasure of attending college, but I believe my hands-on knowledge is something that cannot be taught and I take much pride in ability to lead. Aside from the ASNT certs I hold, I attended some Level I eddy current training early on in my career and have been trained in nital etch, passivation, and pre-penetrant etch processes, including the chemical titrations that are required. I have received some training in 6S methodologies to aid in quality and production capabilities within an organization as well. 

Q.  How do you keep up with changes in technology?

A. With MT and PT, the technology is pretty straightforward. The new LED blacklights seem to be life-changing, but I have not had the pleasure of using them yet!

Q. What areas of NDT would you like to learn more about?

A. I would love to get some hands-on experience doing ultrasonic inspection and eddy current. When I was first taking the ASNT exams, while sitting in on the refresher course for the basic exam, I had the opportunity to learn a little bit about all the methods, which really opened my eyes to how much more is out there. Since making a slight career change recently I now have the opportunity and will soon be involved in both ET, UT, and RT, so the future is bright!

Q.  What are your professional goals?

A. [When I was] first learning of what NDT was, my mentor, Mr. Ed Dukich, was our Level III and was the one who inspired me. I wanted to be a teacher when I was finishing out high school, and seeing him doing just that—but within the field of NDT—absolutely opened my eyes. So my ultimate goal is to be a Level III consultant (which I am finally close to achieving), being able to become a mentor myself and help other people become great inspectors, and helping businesses maintain their NDT program. I am hoping that by the time I get the opportunity to be on my own, I will [have certification in] at least another method or two under my belt.

Q.  Do you have experience in training NDT personnel? What characteristics do you think define a good NDT technician?

A. I have had a few inspectors come up under me, yes. I very much enjoy this process. Patience is a huge help, because [daily work] can become very monotonous, but I think you [also] need to have good problem solving skills and be very detail-oriented. It tends to be a lot like finding needles in a haystack when it comes to doing inspections. We are looking for all types of defects, like stress cracks and manufacturing defects, which can range in any size…so being able to maintain your patience and sort through the background is huge. Also, remembering and understanding where you came from while training a new technician is important. When you are first exposed to NDT, you need to remember that it does take time to become fully independent, so it’s important to encourage and not discourage with negativity.

Q. Can you tell me about your experience being a section officer? How has ASNT membership/section involvement benefitted your career?

A. After my first year or two making it out to several of our section meetings in 2005, I was nominated as a director and was on the board for two terms. Just last year (2017), the Section decided to rally our dissipated Metro NY/Northern NJ Section, and I was highly enthusiastic in being a part of the re-vamping. For me, I was very much interested in keeping a relationship with our group. Starting out being a very young woman in the industry, I felt the need to show myself off, working hard to make an impression and a name for myself. Knowing where I want to be in the future, I understood that networking was definitely going to be an advantage. Also, considering my lack of general life experience back then, I chose to use my experience on the board as the perfect learning tool to help become a better leader for any of my future endeavors. At this point it has certainly been a positive experience, as I was just re-nominated as the secretary for our Section today!

Q. How can practitioners become involved in their ASNT Section?

A. Well, that’s easy! Once you are a member of ASNT, if your email is used within the application, you will automatically get email from the secretary of your local section. I am an advocate for our Section and try to expand the invitation to all individuals with whom I connect within the aerospace field. Whether or not you are an NDT person or a quality inspector at a manufacturing plant, the meetings promote a serve-all community and are meant to be a social experience where we can get together, network, and walk away with some knowledge about an interesting subject that you may have had no clue about beforehand. I feel it is really a win/win for anyone who decides to attend.

Q. Have you ever had/been an NDT mentor? How helpful have mentoring relationships been in your work? What’s the best career advice you’ve received?

A. I have not actually considered myself a mentor at this point, but I suppose I may actually already be one, which is an aspiration of mine. I do have a wonderful relationship with one of my Level II inspectors who has worked under my guidance for over three years. I am consistently an open book to him and love feeding him as much knowledge as I can possibly share. As far as my mentor…I hold him in the highest esteem and thoroughly respect him for pushing me to be who I am today. About two years ago he received the ASNT Mentoring Award, and I was part of the [group] who nominated him for the award. Mr. Eddy D. (Edward Dukich) was the first one to expose me to this field, when I was only 17 years old. I have kept in close contact with him over the years and owe him a great deal for believing in me. I do have another mentor I would love to mention. We both share the same original mentor (Ed), but she has now become a mentor for me for the next phase of my career and is helping guide me to becoming a better Level III, a great trainer, examiner, and consultant…Ms. Toni Bailey! We have been working very closely together these last few years and she has pushed me, giving me the courage and motivation that I can do it (and that I am doing a great job thus far).

Q. What’s the best part of NDT?

A. Knowing that I did my best to keep those who are flying safe is a huge reward all by itself. The other part of my job that satisfies me is the mentoring/advocating/educating part. I thoroughly enjoy explaining in detail to customers or trainees the ins and outs of NDT. I am also very proud of my career, in just being able to look at my child when she says, “Momma, what do you do at work”? and I can tell her that I help the airplanes fly safely. To me, what we represent to our children is a huge reward.

Q. What’s the most difficult part of NDT?

A. Stress. Working in a fast-paced “need this done yesterday” type of environment, all the while trying maintain quality standards to meet the several different aerospace prime(s) and NADCAP requirements, can be very trying on your mental state. It does take some finesse; to learn how to balance both your production needs and your quality needs—all while maintaining your peace of mind—is a difficult thing to juggle. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. A long time ago, a wise old man gave me the best advice—work smarter, not harder—and I have carried that with me for the last 17 years.

Q. What can the industry do to encourage careers in NDT? What can ASNT do to assist/encourage technicians in their careers?

A. I think the industry needs to stop being scared of the idea of NDT. I see all too often that customers really just have no clue what we do, or why. They tend to downplay [our importance] and feel like we are more of a burden to the process from time to time because of the delay inspections can cause…but without NDT, we are subjected to a dangerous world. I know that when I was younger, I had absolutely no clue what NDT was, and I think reaching out to the younger generations and letting them know about it as an option would be huge. I thought the campaign with the Girl Scouts was a fantastic idea in spreading the word about our industry.

Q. What is the best way for a technician to advance his or her career in NDT?

A. It certainly is two completely different worlds to go from strictly technician into more of an administrative-type NDT position. In order to make it further in NDT, you need to dive into the procedures and be involved with the auditing process. Being able to orchestrate a customer prime or NADCAP audit is one way to assure the readiness in moving forward into more of a management role. Read procedures, ask questions, and get involved in the quality aspects of NDT, and you can definitely go further.

Tara M. Kavanaugh can be reached at or