WASHINGTON — In some ways, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson believes her entire life was a diversion from its planned course.
As a young girl in Keene, New Hampshire, Wilson dreamed of becoming a pilot. With a grandfather who flew in both World Wars, and a father who began flying at the age of 13 (and later served as a crew chief in the Air Force), one could say aviation is in the Wilson family’s blood.
She grew up in a 1,600 square-foot-house with a kitchen, living room, den and two bedrooms.
“The den was supposed to be my bedroom, but I was in [a room] with my two brothers because my father was building an experimental open cockpit biplane inside our house,” Wilson said. “So, when I say I grew up around aviation, I literally mean I grew up around aviation!”
Her earliest flying memory is at age 4, sitting on a pillow in a Piper J-3 Cub with her father, who would leave the aircraft door open so she and her siblings could take in the scenery.
Her surroundings drove her toward the U.S. Air Force Academy, which began accepting women when she was a junior in high school. With her grandfather’s support, she applied and was accepted into the academy’s third coed class.
“That changed the course of my life,” she recalled. “I became something that I never expected to be, and I saw parts of the world I never expected to experience growing up in a small town.”
As a young adult, the academy influenced Wilson in many ways.
“One of the strongest is the Honor Code – ‘We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does,’” she said. “That setting of values – a very firm foundation of values – is something that a service academy education does. I’m grateful for it.”
She graduated from USAFA in 1982 and initially had orders to attend pilot training, but destiny had other plans. Instead, she was awarded a graduate school scholarship and earned her master’s and doctoral degrees as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England.
During her seven years of Air Force service Wilson served as a planner, political advisor and an arms control negotiator. After, she went on to serve on the National Security Council staff, represent New Mexico’s first district as a member of Congress, run a large state agency, start a small business, and become president of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. Wilson said each experience contributed to the success of the next.
“The Snap-On tool guy used to come by our house, and my dad had this big, red tool chest in the garage … the truck would come by and it was almost like Christmas. My dad would get another tool, and he’d put it in his toolbox,” she said. “Life’s like that, whatever job you have, you’re adding more tools to your toolbox.”
Wilson said she didn’t anticipate returning to federal service, but her “toolbox” now resides in the Secretary of the Air Force office at the Pentagon.
“This was yet another diversion from my planned course,” Wilson admitted. “I loved higher education, and I still do, but I’ve been called to serve. I will do my duty and serve the Air Force.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis swore Wilson in as the 24th Secretary of the Air Force May 16. During her speech, she spoke with emotion about the sacrifices of American Airmen and the capabilities they bring to the joint fight.
“I’m inspired by patriotism and by people’s willingness to serve this country, and I really do think that willingness is one of the things that makes this a great country,” she said. “It inspires me.”
“Our Airmen dominate air and space,” she continued. “This is an exceptionally qualified, technically-capable service that probably doesn’t get enough credit for everything we do. It’s a wonderful group of technically competent innovators, and it’s a fun group to be around.”
In addition to being responsible for more than 660,000 Airmen in the Total Force, she mentioned other “unique” aspects of the job that will take some getting used to.
“I’m still adjusting to having quite a few people around me,” the secretary said. “I’m used to carrying my own briefcase and going down to the cafeteria for lunch … there’s a bit of an adjustment there.”
Professionally, Wilson is a values-driven leader – an attribute she said is a legacy of being a member of the Air Force. She’s also mission-focused and people-oriented. Airmen can expect her to be direct and honest, treat people fairly and be driven by the Air Force Core Values. In turn, she expects Airmen to expertly carry out the mission.
“The highest priority for me is to do those things that only the secretary can do, and that’s to try to secure the resources, to fight for the budget, to do all of those things that are ‘gotta dos,’” Wilson said. “The ‘wanna dos’ have to do with getting out in the field and letting people teach me what’s working and what’s not working, and just getting to know them…that usually makes my day. Just talking to young Airmen of all ranks, [and finding out] who they are, where they came from, what they do, why they do it…it’s the best part of this job.”
Since returning to the Air Force, Wilson has reviewed the service’s current challenges and developed her list of priorities. Her first focus is Air Force readiness.
“We have to restore the readiness of the force in order to be ready for any fight, anytime, anywhere,” Wilson said. “I also think readiness is a morale issue. If our Airmen have what they need to do the job, if they’re getting the flying hours they need, if maintainers have the parts they need, if there are enough people to do the job, morale tends to be high. But if we’re not providing those things to Airmen trying to do a job, it’s frustrating. So, readiness is number one.”
During her review, Wilson took note of the number of Air Force modernization programs over the next five to 10 years, and made modernizing the force her second focus.
“It’s not just one big program – it’s fighters … and tankers … and bombers … and space assets … and the nuclear deterrent – it’s across the board,” she explained. “(There’s) a lot of acquisition going on in the Air Force. We’ve got to get that right – we’ve got to value every dollar that’s spent, because somebody earned that dollar.”
Wilson believes she won the lottery with the Air Force’s current leadership. Her final priority falls in line with one of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein’s focus areas.
“Both the chief and I believe that the squadron is the basic unit of the Air Force,” Wilson explained. “If we have great leadership in the squadron and a great culture set at the squadron, there’s almost nothing he and I can do to screw this up. The development of leaders at the squadron level has to be a priority, and if we get that right the culture of the Air Force will be one that’s mission-focused, values-driven and people-oriented.”
Though the Air Force secretary’s life has been a series of diversions, the one thing that stayed the course for Wilson is her love of airplanes. She is now an instrument-rated private pilot and the owner of a Cessna 152. “It’s not much, but it flies and it’s mine,” she says. She hopes to return to the skies soon, but first – duty calls.