Childhood curiosity opened door for engineer
Head of Navy Engineering Rear Admiral Kath Richards was little more than a toddler when she got her first taste of the Navy.
Then three years old, she was visiting her father, Rear Admiral Geoff Bayliss, Fleet Medical Officer in aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne.
“I saw this enormous ship before me. My mother went ahead in the passageway to get to the wardroom,” Rear Admiral Richards said.
“I was too little to be able to step over the coaming, so a couple of stokers, one either side, lifted me up over it, and one said, ‘you’ll be right, mate’.”
Here, her first interest in engineering was piqued.
Rear Admiral Richards dabbled in different engineering fields while at ADFA, including electrical, before getting a good look around a ship’s engine room.
“They can be quite scary and for many people they’re terrifying,” she said.
“But I just felt a connection with it.
“I wanted to understand how things came together and how they worked.
“It’s the raw power and the noise, and often the heat and the smell.
“I didn’t recoil from them – I just felt an affinity and an attraction to them.”
She completed a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering with honours in 1992, then received her marine engineer charge qualification in 1998 while in HMAS Newcastle.
In 2001, then Lieutenant Commander Richards became the marine engineering officer in the frigate HMAS Melbourne, the first female to become a charge engineer of a major fleet unit.
She served on Operation Stanhope in the Southern Ocean in 1998, Solomon Islands during 2001 and Operation Slipper in 2002.
Then Captain Richards went on to command HMAS Cerberus from 2012-2013.
She became Head of Navy Engineering on February 4, responsible for Navy’s safety and seaworthiness.
“Engineering penetrates the capability life cycle from how we set our requirements, how we design our ships, how we build and construct them and how we operate them.
“If you don’t understand that technology and your hazards and risks, you won’t achieve what you want.”
Back in 1901, the third naval member of the RAN’s Navy Board was always an engineer.
This historical engineering focus shifted in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the head of Navy engineering wasn’t an admiral.
“The position was re-established, we went right back to grassroots and decided we had to maintain our focus after the challenges of both the Rizzo Review and Coles Review,” Rear Admiral Richards said.
About one-third of Navy is comprised of engineering people, refurbishing ships, repairing items and conducting maintenance.
Rear Admiral Richards said she hoped she could be an inspiration for young women entering Navy.
“It’s hard to believe what you can’t see.
“I also hope it can show young women they can be true to themselves.
“I’m married with three children and in many ways I’m just a pretty normal middle-aged woman, if there is such a thing.”
With the handover of command on February 12 from Commodore Colin Dagg to Commodore Rachel Durbin as Director-General Engineering, this is the first time the two senior engineering roles are held by women simultaneously.
Although Rear Admiral Richards is the first female Head of Navy Engineering, she said it was progressive men who encouraged, mentored and guided her to the officer she is today.
“When I joined Navy Engineering, it was completely male dominated,” she said.
“I am mindful that without my male colleagues, I wouldn’t be here, so I hope they can celebrate as much as the women in the system who can see it as something open to them.”
Despite rising to the top of her field, Rear Admiral Richards said the biggest achievements were not about her.
“Highlights for me are when a sailor says you made a difference to their life and when their family tells you that you have helped them,” she said.