Aerial refueling in progress

Mission and Purpose, as understood by an aerial refueler pilot


How does the time and place of your childhood shape your life and ambitions? For Cathy McClain, it was everything.

“I grew up as the eldest child in a tiny town in South-East Texas, she says, just 100 miles east of Houston. It was the 60s, and that’s important, because the space race was on, and I wanted to be a part of it. I knew I had to start out as a jet pilot.”

From an early age McClain was interested in math and science. She climbed trees and skinned her knees. Her parents, a schoolteacher and a petrochemical worker, “never told me there was something I couldn’t do because I was a girl,” she says.

Because her dad was a naturalized Canadian from Calgary, the family took annual road trips up north.

“Once we took a route north that led directly by the Air Force Academy,” McClain remembers. “My dad explained it was the Air Force equivalent of West Point. I remember looking at it in the distance and thinking: I want to go there.”

When she returned to her small town after the road trip, McClain mentioned her plans to a school counselor.

“Honey,” the lady replied. “You can’t go there. You’re a girl.”

McClain’s 13-year-old self was furious.

“I grabbed a piece of paper from a three-ring binder and wrote my congressman (Charlie Wilson),” she says. She never heard back.

Two years later, the military academies opened to women and McClain began the application process. A key step was obtaining a nomination from her Congressman. Sowhen Congressman Wilson was visiting her local library, McClain attended the event.

“I went up and shook his hand, and I remember without letting go of my hand, he asked: ‘Did you write me a letter a few years ago?’ “

McClain said that she had. The next week, Congressman Wilson nominated McClain to the Air Force Academy.

What does she remember from that experience?

“I never stopped pushing,” she says. “I never gave up on what I wanted.”

That earliest experience informs her advice to any young leader. “Never let go of your dream, and always do your best, she says.

McClain entered the Air Force Academy in the third class to admit women. Out of 1475 cadets, approximately 180, or twelve percent, were women. 99 women graduated, the same graduation rate as the men.

McClain remembers the camaraderie more than the isolated incidents around being a woman at the Academy. She does remember that the academics were intense.

“My small town school hadn’t prepared me well,” she says. “I just really struggled. It was a wake up call.”

She had already learned to never give up, and she graduated with an assignment to fly the KC-135, a flying tanker that does aerial-refueling for other aircraft.

An early challenge with the perception of women in aviation set her up well for the rest of her career.

“Flying a tanker requires a four-person crew,” she says. “I was upgraded to left seat very early (the pilot-in-command position). Soon after, I got word that a boom operator was bad mouthing me behind my back. I thought a lot about how I should handle it, and I ultimately decided I was just going to do my job.

Several months later, he came to my room (crew members had their own rooms in the alert facility) and knocked. I opened the door and said, ‘Hi, how can I help you?’

He looked at me and almost sputtered. ‘I didn’t want to fly with you, but you’re ok.’ Then he ran down the hall. I figured I’d made the right decision.”

Mission and Purpose

The KC-135 Stratotanker is a military variant of the Boeing 707, and operates as the Air Force resource used for decades in order to support its mission of Global Reach and Global Power. It carries up to 200,000 pounds of fuel (approximately 31,000 gallons) and can handle cargo as well.

McClain at 30,000 feet as pilot in command of the KC-135

McClain describes the way that the KC-135 interacts with a receiving aircraft.

“We take off and meet at a certain time, place and altitude,” she says, “and when we get to that point, we are still 100 miles away from each other.The tanker flies towards the receiver aircraft. When we’re within 20 miles we make a left turn in front of the receiver so that we roll out three miles in front.

The receiver pilot positions her aircraft behind the tanker and begins to stabilize at about 50’. The boom operator flies the 28-foot-long boom, which can be extended to 48’. It is the boom operator who guides the boom to the receiver pilot’s receptacle in the last few inches.”

A simple mission can easily become dangerous, though, if the weather is poor or the receiver pilot is inexperienced.

“If things start to go wrong, the boom yells ‘Breakaway! Breakaway! Breakaway!’

This means we’re about to crash midair. If the boom yells this, we initiate a steep climb and the receiver pilot cuts power to idle and dives the aircraft.”

I mention this seems pretty scary, and McClain laughs.

“It happens,” she says. It’s all in a day’s work for these crews.

The intense team focus of the tanker mission suited McClain well. At the end of her eight-year commitment, she decided to stay.

“I’ve always loved my job,” she says. “I was just having too much fun.”

She’s most proud of the dedication of the airmen she served with, and tells the story of a mission she flew in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“I was in charge of white world tankers and black world (special operations) tankers, as well as AWACS and JSTARS aircraft in theater,” she says. “One night mission, I flew with my special operations crew on a mission supporting Army and Marines on the ground.

The troops were heavily engaged, and because we don’t have any sensors or defensive systems to keep us safe, our air refueling area was moved seven miles away from the fray,” she remembers. “An AC-130 Gunship was circling the ground troops providing support.

In this advertisement for the Air Force, McClain looks over the shoulder of her boom operator

“That’s when we got the call. It’s the gunship, and he’s calling in saying he’s engaged and he needs fuel, now. Our navigator asked for coordinates and then relayed to our crew that the gunship was positioned exactly over the fight, the place we were told to avoid.”

McClain and her crew knew the risks. They were flying an aircraft loaded with 200,000 pounds of fuel. If the tanker was hit by any kind of fire, they’d be a fireball, instantly.

“I keyed the interphone and said this was going to be a crew decision,” she said. “I looked at my copilot- he’s a 30 year old guy, wife and two young kids, the navigator, just 28 years old, and my boom (boom operator).”

Nobody hesitated for a moment.

“Let’s do it,” the copilot said.

The boom grabbed an oxygen tank and said “Boom headed back with oxygen.”

We all knew our fellow Americans were on the ground,” she says. “We cut all our lights, put on night vision goggles, and dove down to 4,000 feet in the middle of the firefight and refueled the AC-130 Gunship.

That’s when I realized the strength and power of the amazing airmen I served with,” she says. “They acted with such courage, no hesitation at all for their own safety.”

Facing challenge and making change

While she doesn’t recall specific flying related challenges, McClain found her greatest challenge in balancing the massive requirements of command and deploymentsin the post 9–11 military with her young family.

“I lost three years with my kids,” she says. “I left in the morning before they had breakfast and came home after dinner. One day I looked at my kids and thought, these are such great kids, and I don’t really know what they’re doing right now. I had to spend a lot of time rebuilding those relationships so my kids saw mom, not just the colonel.”

McClain returning from deployment to her three children

That experience informed McClain’s promotion to Wing Commander leading over 3,500 people.

“I made a rule that there would be no meetings before 8 AM because I was having breakfast with my kids,” she says. “And no work over dinner, because I was going to be home.”

How did people respond?

“They got use to waiting until 8 for morning meetings pretty quickly,” she laughs. “But at 5 PM, I would walk through the offices and say “time to wrap up!” and people would protest that there was more work to do, packages to plan.”

McClain asked them three questions.

“Is anyone going to die if you don’t do this now?”

“Is anyone going to get hurt because you don’t do this right now?”

“Is anyone going to miss out on the chance of a lifetime because you don’t do this right now?”

If the answer to all three was no, and it usually was, it was time to go home.

I’m struck by McClain’s willingness to recognize something that didn’t work in her life and work, and be willing to make changes that help both her and the people who work for her.

McClain considers the requirements of any job a new leader or transitioning leader might have, and uses the analogy originally suggested by Harvard researcher Marshall Ganz: the hands, head and heart.

“Starting with hands,” she begins, “you have to be technically proficient at your job. Leaders have the responsibility to be sure you have the best training. Then you move to your head. That’s judgment. Assessing a situation and making the right choice. Finally, there’s heart. What do you bring to the table internally? You have to know what you stand for, and in the best cases there should be a match with the organization.

Sounds a lot like the work of commitment and drill down to purpose we work on through the Grit Institute.

looking down the boom during aerial refueling

Grit: what it is, and how it’s developed

What is grit?

“It’s perseverance, toughness,” McClain says. “I think back to that lady saying: ‘honey, you can’t go there.’ You never stop working toward your dreams.”

It’s McClain’s parents who showed her what grit looked like.

‘My mom went back to school to get her degree once my sister and I were in school,” she says. “I remember helping her study when I was in sixth grade!”

McClain’s father went back to school as well. “It wasn’t easy for him,” she recalls. “He was working a rotating shift at the petrochemical company, and there were some nights he worked until 8 AM and had to be in class by 9.”

For those who aren’t lucky to come from families where grit is developed, McClain believes mentors step in, too.

“Both leadership and grit can be developed,” she says. “You need mentors or bosses who will help you push the envelope and help you see that you can do more than you thought you could.”

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Teaching leadership

She credits her opportunity to work with outstanding leaders throughout her career as key to her successes. Later in her career, students at the Air Force Academy were fortunate to have her pass along that wisdom when she returned to teach Behavioral Sciences and Leadership.

It turns out we share a love of Star Trek, particularly the Next Generation, and she mentions an episode she used in the classroom at the Academy.

McClain preparing to fly in the first sortie into Iraq

It is the final season of the series,in an episode titled The Pegasus, referring to the ship on which Captain Picard’s number 1, Riker, served as a young ensign, Riker’s past is exposed in the course of the mission, a past where he was a junior officer and supported his captain making an unethical decision. He has the opportunity to make it right, and when he makes the decision to speak honestly — against the orders of the admiral with whom he has served — he is able to redeem his younger self. I was glad for the chance to revisit the episode at her recommendation. (Not surprisingly, she’s apt to recommend All I Really Need to Know I learned from Star Trek.)

“It was about being willing to make unpopular decisions when they were the right, ethical decisions,” she says. “Understanding that not everyone is going to like you.”

After commanding at the squadron, group and wing levels, teaching behavioral sciences and leadership at the Air Force Academy and putting in her time at the Pentagon, McClain retired to a position at Boeing. She left the private sector recently to begin work as an executive coach. When we spoke, she’s just heard she may have an opportunity to do some flight instruction and is excited to get back in the cockpit along with her coaching work.

But she’s also committed to continuing to give back. She works as a volunteer EMT, and is chair of the Air Force Academy Association of Graduates, too.

“It’s a lot of time right now, but the Academy gave me everything,” she says. “I love having the opportunity to give back to it.”

Another joy? All three of her children are now grown, and her youngest, a son, is studying to be a pilot. “He was never interested when I was in the Air Force,” she says. “You never know how you’ll influence someone along the way.”

It seems clear there are many who are fortunate for her example.


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Shannon H. Polson, Author, Veteran and Founder

LEADERSHIP. GRIT. PURPOSE. The Grit Factor AVAILABLE NOW: Founder: Committed to veterans and women in leadership.