Boeing’s Peter “Pete” Kunz was always fond of a familiar saying: “Never regret a day in your life: Good days give happiness, bad days give experience, worst days give lessons and best days give memories.” For the vice president and chief engineer of Phantom Works, part of Defense, Space & Security, a love for fixing things led to a career in aerospace.

“I grew up around sailboats. My parents always encouraged me to take apart things and fix them myself,” Pete said. “I always had a passion around aircraft. Never been a pilot, but have built and flown models all my life and always loved being around the machines."

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Then and now: A childhood love for fixing things led Pete Kunz, vice president and chief engineer of Phantom Works, part of Defense, Space & Security, to a career in aerospace. (Courtesy of Pete Kunz)

Pete followed in his parents’ footsteps and attended Pennsylvania State University. He earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in aerospace engineering and was one of the first students in Penn State’s inaugural hands-on class on sailplanes.

“It was a place where the people around me were just as curious and passionate around aviation and aerospace as I was. The department is nurturing and strongly values mentorship. It was a great place to learn,” said Pete.

After earning a doctorate in aeronautics from Stanford University, Pete accepted an opportunity to serve as a defense technology consultant in Phoenix. Through that role he spent the better part of a year in Afghanistan supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, living and working with the U.S. Army.

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Pete Kunz, supporting the U.S. Army Rapid Equipping Force as lead engineer. (Courtesy of Pete Kunz)

“I worked out of a small lab in Kandahar with myself and a lab tech and it was find a problem, fix a problem,” Pete said. “We would shadow teams and go out and camp with folks, see their sights, understand their problems and challenges, and come up with solutions.”

“After returning to the United States, Pete joined Boeing subsidiary Insitu, then a small startup in Bingen, Washington.

He eventually became the chief engineer for the U.S. Marine Corps’ RQ-21 Blackjack uncrewed aerial system, and then the Chief Technology Officer for Insitu.

In 2017, Pete joined Boeing as the chief technologist for HorizonX and NeXt, before moving into his current role with Phantom Works.

“The role of a chief engineer is what I tend to describe as analogous to the conductor in an orchestra. I was an engineer, I did design work, testing work, but now I’m in a role where I conduct the orchestra,” Pete said. “It doesn’t mean I don’t do anything around music. The conductor is a very important part of the orchestra, but it’s more around bringing all those players together in a way that creates something of value.”

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The Cargo Air Vehicle, developed by Boeing NeXt, was used in partnership with Disney World in Orlando, Florida, for a flying X-Wing display at the opening of the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attraction in 2019. (Boeing photo)

Pete serves as the Boeing Executive Council Sponsor for Penn State and is a current member of the Department of Aerospace Engineering Industrial and Professional Advisory Council. Recently, Penn State College of Engineering named Kunz one of 11 recipients of the 2022 Outstanding Engineering Alumni Award.

“I was very surprised. It’s a pretty big honor,” Pete said. “There’s a lounge at Penn State with headshots of distinguished alumni. When you’re an undergrad you wonder: a.) how one gets their name on the wall and b.) will I ever be that old? It’s humbling, and in some ways alarming, that now I’m one of those faces.”

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A close-up of Pete Kunz during an Outstanding Engineering Alumni award ceremony at his alma mater, Pennsylvania State University. (Courtesy of Penn State School of Engineering)

When Pete looks back at his journey, he says he would not change a thing.

“Everything you’ve done, good or bad, leads to this moment. Be willing to take those risks,” Pete said. “When I’ve looked at the places where I’ve grown the most professionally, it’s been in those failures, those really challenging situations. It’s only through that challenging of one’s self and overcoming that adversity, adversity you’ve created for yourself through a screw-up, where you’re going to grow and get to know yourself as a professional.”

Pete has this advice for career builders: “You don’t have to have this highly linear and well-defined path that you hope to traverse. For myself and my career, it’s always been a bit of a random walk, where it was more around looking for opportunities that interested me but also represented challenges.”

“If you take advantage of those opportunities and lean into that discomfort, you’re positioning yourself well for the next opportunity.”