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Fatherhood brings new frontiers: AEDC engineer climbs to new heights as latest chapter unfolds

Megan tries out the new high chair her father, Anthony Watts, was building. He is a senior engineer with Dynetics, Inc., at Arnold Engineering Development Center. (Photo provided)

Megan tries out the new high chair her father, Anthony Watts, was building. He is a senior engineer with Dynetics, Inc., at Arnold Engineering Development Center. (Photo provided)

Anthony Watts and a friend climb Huayna Potosi (19,996 ft) in Bolivia. They were climbing with Alpenglow Expeditions, owned and operated by Adrian Ballinger, who taught Watts ice climbing techniques in 2002. (Photo provided)

Anthony Watts and a friend climb Huayna Potosi (19,996 ft) in Bolivia. They were climbing with Alpenglow Expeditions, owned and operated by Adrian Ballinger, who taught Watts ice climbing techniques in 2002. (Photo provided)

The 35-year-old engineer ascends the rope up a 700-foot rock face in Whiteside, N.C. with friend and coworker, Alan Hale (not pictured), who was teaching Watts some new skills in September 2005. (Photo provided)

The 35-year-old engineer ascends the rope up a 700-foot rock face in Whiteside, N.C. with friend and coworker, Alan Hale (not pictured), who was teaching Watts some new skills in September 2005. (Photo provided)

ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. -- Anthony Watts is climbing an almost sheer wall of ice, pausing to look out at the view around him, the only sounds are those of his own breathing and a slight, but frigid breeze as it rustles his clothes. About 20 feet below, Watts can see his friend, Robert Baltz, waiting patiently in the cold for his turn on the rope to ascend the next section of the cliff face. 

The day before the two men had attempted climbing Mt. Washington in New Hampshire's White Mountains, after reaching the base of the ice climb site by dawn. Dangerous conditions had thwarted their goal of climbing the highest elevation in the range, but their enthusiasm for the quest remained. 

"We turned around due to high avalanche danger and ended up climbing at another area where the snow was still deep, but there was no danger of avalanches," recalled the 35-year-old Dynetics engineer. 

Up on the mountain's slope, Watts and his friend were in their element, enjoying the clear cold air and spectacular views. The Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC) and Watts' home in Tullahoma seemed light years away. However, his thoughts soon turned to his wife, Betsy, and the newest addition to their lives, a little girl they named Megan. Betsy was playing chauffer to the two climbers while Megan was staying warm with her grandparents in Tennessee. 

Watts' thoughts turned to how much the young couple's perspective on things had changed since they decided to adopt the little girl from overseas. He vividly recalled the day the two of them traveled close to 7,000 miles to visit an orphanage where a 15-month-old girl with the nickname of Nan Gua (pumpkin) soon became the central focus of their lives. 

"Last April, we went to China," he said. "It was a little over a two-year process of paperwork and waiting that seemed like forever, but definitely well worth it." 

The couple soon learned that forming a bond with Megan was going to present a bit of a challenge. 

"There were five families in our group that travelled together to adopt a child," he said. "On the day we all met our children, affectionately called 'Gotcha Day,' Megan was the only child that was absolutely screaming at the top of her lungs. She did not want to leave her Nanny who had taken such good care of her for the first 15 months of her life. It wasn't long though before she became attached to Betsy." 

Watts quickly discovered he would have to work harder to win over his daughter's acceptance. 

"We were in China for about two weeks with Megan," Watts recalled. "Just about every morning I would put her in a little carrier that held her close to me and go for a walk. Usually by the time we got outside the hotel doors she had stopped crying and we enjoyed our walk. 

It took a couple of months for her to get used to me, but now the whole family can enjoy hanging out together or Megan and I can go off and give Mommy a break. We still enjoy walks together but now she's in a stroller or we're walking through water puddles together after a good rain." 

Watts said he is already looking for signs that the alert and curious two-year-old may have an inclination for scaling mountains when she is older. 

"Megan loves to climb everywhere - playgrounds, ladders, climbing walls," he said. "I encourage her and just want her to love the outdoors as I do." 

Since Watts first joined AEDC's work force in 2003, he has reflected on the journey that brought him this far, both professionally and personally. He was the first one in his family to go to college. 

"In high school I couldn't decide at first between civil and mechanical engineering," he said. "I've always enjoyed math and science and I enjoy solving problems. I didn't have another engineer to look to, but I got a lot of hands-on experience working with my Dad in heating and air conditioning and other fields." 

After finishing his undergraduate studies, Watts pursued his master's degree in mechanical engineering. As soon as he graduated, he travelled to India for two months with a college friend from India on an adventure that would shape both of their lives in many ways. 

His friend found a wife and Anthony gained a deep appreciation for another culture. When he returned, he started on his PhD at the University of Tennessee Space Institute but later decided he would start his career and possibly return to the PhD at a later date. 

"Then I went to work in Virginia, at Newport News Shipbuilding," he recalled. "That was my first job out of college." 

He soon found himself behind a computer, working with computational fluid dynamics (CFD). Watts said he enjoyed the work and found a balance with his love for the outdoors through weekend hiking and climbing trips that eventually led to peaks as high as 20,000 feet. 

However, it was his personal life that took an unexpected turn. For Watts it was a Sunday like most, a worship service followed by Sunday school. 

"I had been going to the same church for about two years at that point, and then one Sunday Betsy showed up and introduced herself and asked if she could sit down next to me. By the end of Sunday school she had given me her name and phone number and suggested that I call if I wanted to go out sometime." 

They started dating and two months later were engaged. Six months after they met they were married. 

"It's a good thing that she was so forward or otherwise I may have missed the opportunity to share our eighth wedding anniversary together next month!" he said. 

In 2003, Watts and his wife settled into life in middle Tennessee. He said they have experienced something new - a sense of permanence. 

"Having spent a couple of years in Virginia and Maryland, we both feel at home here in Tennessee," he said. "AEDC has provided interesting and challenging work and an environment that often fosters the family values that we both appreciate. I believe the breadth of my experience has given me a broader context and a different ways of looking at particular problems. 

"Working with colleagues with various expertises has opened up the spectrum of CFD that I've worked in and challenged me to grow in this area," Watts said. "People like Alan Hale have been a valuable technical lead for me in the field of turbo-machinery. CFD is cutting edge and I can see where everything is just waiting for the next development, enabling us to solve long-standing technical fluid dynamics and multi-physics problems within the industry." 

Hale, an engineering specialist in ATA's Technology and Analysis Branch is pleased to have a colleague and a friend who is so focused. 

"I have learned to appreciate Anthony's attention to technical details both at work as he
simulates 3-D time-dependent turbo-machinery, and on the rock faces as he demonstrates lead climbing," he said. "Even though I use much of the same equipment to navigate the vertical aspects of caves, the cave walls are seldom stable enough to use the climbing techniques he uses. I've wholly enjoyed joining Anthony on the cliff faces and learning more about rock climbing from him. He's a good teacher with excellent experience that includes long and technically difficult climbs." 

Watts said he feels fortunate to have a coworker who shares his passion for the outdoors. 

"It's a good mix that I've got a caver right next to me here," he said. "We've tried each other's sport - I've tried caving with Alan and his family and have joined them on an ascent and rappel of a 700-foot face in North Carolina. Alan has also shared a rope with me in rock climbing. Although the two sports are different, there is much to be learned from each other." 

Watts' love of ice climbing and mountaineering, as well as his fascination with different cultures, has taken him as far as Bolivia with hopes of scaling ranges in Peru, Patagonia and Nepal as well as more climbing in Yosemite and throughout the U.S. To say he has a lofty and long wish list would be an understatement. However, he said those trips will have to wait. Raising Megan is the highest priority, one he thoroughly enjoys. 

"Yes, I still have a number of climbs on my list that I dream of doing one day," he said. "Maybe Megan will want to climb with me." 

He is looking forward to the day when his daughter may join him on the ultimate trek. 

"It would be a beautifully aesthetic climb with a little bit of everything - rock, ice, high altitude and lots of dizzying exposure," he said. "Looking out at sites like Everest and the Solu Khumbu region from the top of Ama Dablam would be well worth the effort. It does take a significant amount of time and funds though - maybe one day." 

Watts has also been enjoying making period furniture for his home, including a new 'big girl bed' for Megan and most of the pieces in her room. As a member of the Tennessee Valley Woodworkers Club, he has sought out and found some of the region's finest craftsmen to share their expertise with him and the other members of their organization.
Meanwhile, he is looking forward to the future when Megan will choose her own course in life.