Air Force 75th Anniversary reflections: Gen. Van Ovost

  • Published
  • By Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost
  • U.S. Transportation Command

 My interest in aviation began at an early age. Some years after immigrating to the United States from the Netherlands in the 1960s, with little to their name but an abiding faith in the American Dream, my parents owned a flying operation.

Anyone who has been a part of a family business knows that it is just that, “a family’s business” — meaning it’s everyone’s responsibility to chip in, work hard, and do their part to make it successful.

When I wasn’t sweeping hangars or cleaning spark plugs, I was dreaming of jumping in an airplane, taking the controls and flying it myself. Whether I could see over the dashboard or not, I wanted to play with the buttons and knobs and learn everything about flying.

By the time I was a teenager, I had flown a lot of different aircraft. I got my pilot’s license before I got my driver’s license. My passion for aviation, and the science and physics behind it, was stoked by my time as a Civil Air Patrol cadet and led me to a career in the Air Force. I set my sights on the Air Force Academy and graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering. My dream was to fly fighter jets — I wanted to fly Mach 1 with my hair on fire.

Fast forward to now, I’ve logged more than 4,200 hours of flight time in more than 30 different military aircraft. I have been wearing the uniform for more than three decades and I have loved every opportunity my service has given me; and as the Air Force celebrates its 75th anniversary my history and good fortune as part of this organization comes into even sharper relief.

The Air Force employs some of the most advanced aircraft and best-trained people in the world to defend our nation, deter our adversaries, reassure allies, and help diplomacy proceed from a position of strength. The world recognizes that the Air Force and our sister services push technological and cultural boundaries to make our nation the leader in air and space power. The Air Force also succeeds because it has talented, determined, brave and diverse Airmen and civilians who blend their skills and experience to solve tough challenges to stay ahead of our adversaries.

Just like for my parents, success has not been inevitable. It has been the product of the hard work from our Airmen and the continuous investment and cooperation with our partners around the globe including the American people. With the arrival of the Air Force’s 75th anniversary, I think about the trailblazing Airmen who paved the way to make us the greatest Air Force on the planet. Those who led by example, thought unconventionally and never gave up on their journey of breaking barriers.

People like Capt. Charles “Chuck” Yeager, who was the first to break the sound barrier in 1947, nearly one month to the day after the birth of the Air Force. That breakthrough showcased our reach to higher velocities and proved that machines and Airmen could operate effectively in new realms.

The Tuskegee Airmen displayed unmatched skill and precision while facing racial discrimination during World War II. Their valor earned them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, destroyed more than 250 enemy planes, and helped encourage the integration of the armed forces.

I am grateful for the 97 women of the Air Force Academy’s graduating class of 1980. When they walked up the ramp at the Academy on their first day in 1976, they did so beneath a large sign with two-foot aluminum letters boldly stating, “BRING ME MEN”. Those were words from a Sam Walter Foss poem to describe American leaders, words that no longer encompassed the description of all the leaders at the Academy.

These were men and women of courage, who had strength and perseverance to challenge the status quo and help rebuild the armed forces in the challenging days following the Vietnam War.

Standing in the stadium at my own Air Force Academy graduation in 1988, about to throw my cap in the air, I never would have thought I would become a four-star general. I did it, in part, because of the grit and determination of those who came before me, from the Tuskegee Airmen and Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II to the first female graduating class at the Academy.

It is easy for institutions to casually toss around words like innovation, but much more difficult to accept the risk and uncertainty required to innovate. Any dispassionate account of the Air Force’s history is filled with such examples, from stealth to the Global Positioning System satellites that fuel the world economy.

With the rise of strategic power competitors and the proliferation of technology intended to eliminate our airpower advantage, our security is no longer assured. To maintain a competitive advantage in a battlespace without boundaries, all Airmen are encouraged to remember that adapting for the future fight has always been part of our service identity, and it will take their game-changing ideas to propel our Air Force forward into the next 75 years.

The “family business” I’m in now is a bit larger than the operation my parents ran, but the same principle of everyone chipping in, working hard, and doing their part is just as relevant today as it was then.

Empowered Airmen, who are ready to innovate and accelerate the changes needed to give our nation the security and freedom to thrive, are the competitive edge we have over our adversaries.

Like many, I chose this path to do something greater than myself, to serve and protect this nation that welcomed my family so many years ago. I am proud of our Air Force legacy and equally proud to be an American Airman.

Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost is the commander of U.S. Transportation Command.