When newly commissioned 2nd Lt. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost tossed her cover in the sky as the Thunderbirds roared over Falcon Stadium, she was graduating into an Air Force that would repeatedly tell her “no.”
After a delayed entry to the Academy because of not doing enough pull-ups to meet the requirement, she graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering. Despite years of flying experience and taking a test pilot short course, the Air Force at the time still wouldn’t put a woman in the cockpit of a combat jet. And after graduating from undergraduate pilot training and asking to fly every fighter in the fleet, she was told to fly an airlifter. She later became a test pilot anyway.
After 32 years in service, including flying 4,200 hours in more than 30 aircraft, and tours in both the Air and Joint Staff, Van Ovost on Aug. 20 became the Defense Department’s only four-star female general—the fifth in Air Force history. During a ceremony at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., she took over that distinction and command of Air Mobility Command from her predecessor and the DOD’s previous only female four-star, retiring Gen. Maryanne Miller.
“Standing in the stadium, in 1988 at the Air Force Academy, about to throw my hat in the air, I never would have thought I [would become] a four-star,” Van Ovost said in an interview. “I was very focused on being a pilot, and being the best pilot I could be, and to make a difference in that way. And here we are, standing at the precipice of what might be called a pinnacle of military leadership. But frankly, it’s not so much a pinnacle. For me, it’s a new beginning. It’s a new opportunity to ask key questions, to shape the force in a way to make sense, and provide clarity to the strategic environment that we live in.”
Becoming a Pilot
Van Ovost got into the aviation business as early as anyone can. She flew her first solo on her 16th birthday, got her private pilot’s license on her 17th birthday, and one year later got her single and multi-engine instructor rating. During these years, she volunteered with the Civil Air Patrol, which sparked her interest in going into the military, making her want to fly the fastest and best aircraft.
“There’s a real opportunity, that if I grab it, I may be able to fly Mach One with my hair on fire,” she said. “And that was my dream back then.”
After failing the first physical fitness test to get into the U.S. Air Force Academy, she placed a pullup bar in her home to both remind her of the failure and train to pass it the next year. After graduating in 1988, Van Ovost wanted to force the Air Force’s hand. She requested to go to Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. “I made them look at that as my selection, and say, ‘No you can’t, because women can’t be combat.’” She went on to the now closed Reese Air Force Base, Texas, and upon graduating in 1989 she asked “to fly every fighter we had, and kind of made them tell me no, that I couldn’t fly those fighters. But it was on my list because I wanted to slip the surlies beyond Mach One. And I really love the physics, frankly, of what I was doing.”
She was instead assigned to the C-141 Starlifter, the best option of what was “viable at the time” and she spent four years at then-Charleston Air Force Base, S.C. In 1993, the service finally opened combat cockpits for women. At the time, Van Ovost was looking for her next assignment, and it came down to either moving on to fly the F-15E Strike Eagle or follow a goal of flying everything the Air Force has to offer by becoming a test pilot.
At Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., she served both as a test pilot, then later on as an instructor, flying dozens of aircraft, though the A-10 was her favorite because of its legendary gun. “You could not wipe the smile off my face for weeks after that flight,” she said.
What’s Old is New
Key for her current assignment was working closely with the development of the C-17 Globemaster III. While the C-17 now is the backbone of the Air Force’s mobility fleet, it severely struggled in its early years.
As a test pilot, and later as the chief of the C-17 Acquisition Branch and C-17 Program Element Monitor, Van Ovost worked on the Boeing-made heavy aircraft, which had massive developmental problems and a target on its back. The C-17 was “being battered around as a waste of money on [Capitol] Hill” with only 40 planes on contract. It was over budget and had far more “category one” deficiencies [the worst there is] than the Air Force’s current problematic mobility acquisition program, the KC-46, does now.
“Everybody put their nose to the grindstone,” she said. “We were kind of given an ultimatum, and we produced, and we saw real gains met, so we leveraged everything we could, and we turned that airplane around.”
The team focused on concurrent initial operational test and evaluation with developmental test and engineering to fix issues quickly. In those initial test sorties with the C-17, it was put through its paces doing aerial refueling, dirt operations, low altitude operations, and combat-style airdrops. Now, Air Mobility Command is flying those aircraft operationally in the ways it was tested. “To turn around and watch us use it in combat was very, very satisfying for me,” she said.
While there are a lot of similarities between the developmental processes of the two planes, the C-17 was an all-new aircraft and the KC-46 is a “Boeing 767 turned into a refueler. But the parallels of working closely with a contractor and with IOT&E, with our test teams and our developmental test team, and holding people accountable turned [that] airplane around,” she said.
Van Ovost said she will take that experience and focus on a KC-46 that is still years away from being fully operationally capable and deployable. The fix to the aircraft’s problematic Remove Vision System, deemed RVS 2.0, is still years away from being tested, evaluated, and installed, and AMC will “continue to hold Boeing accountable, working hand-in-hand to meet those requirements as quickly as we can.” She said her test background helps to look at the program’s requirements and contract structure, giving some “insight to understand where we can push hard, and where we can’t. So, on this road to ensuring that the airplane can become IOC as quickly as possible.”
The program has seen some progress recently, including flying aeromedical evacuation sorties and refueling the Navy’s Blue Angels during the spring’s “Salute to America” tour.
“As opportunities come up, we like to exercise the portions of the envelope that reopen on this airplane as much as possible with our Total Force that’s flying the airplane,” she said. “We want to accelerate the capability of the training for these aircraft, the simulation capability, so that we can move as much as possible into the simulator and minimize training time on the physical airplane itself.”
Keeping Old Fleets Healthy
As the KC-46’s development moves along, Air Mobility Command is looking at new ways to keep its legacy fleet healthy, especially the Cold War-era KC-135s that currently serve as the backbone of the refueling fleet. Van Ovost said she plans to build on progress using new software-based methods that have shown to be effective in giving the older aircraft and their Airmen rest and maintenance. For example, in recent years AMC used software modeling based on years of air tasking orders in the Middle East to predict the amount of tankers needed to be in theater, letting the command keep more tails and crews home. This has given momentum to developing different readiness generation models, which have shown some gains in readiness in recent months even amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We preserved some of the capabilities back at the unit, so they can fly missions and ensure people are current and proficient at the mission,” she said. “And then, we’ve also given more time for our maintainers to [work] on the airplanes, to try to increase the capability rate of the airplane.”
The command also is increasing the use of virtual reality, which has already caught on in other parts of the Air Force, including Air Education and Training Command’s Pilot Training Next initiative. Unlike PTN, which uses VR headsets to simulate flying in the cockpit of a T-6, AMC is developing VR training modules for C-5 loadmasters to practice working in the back of a Super Galaxy without having to have the actual aircraft on the ramp for the training. The command is also developing engine maintenance and cargo loading modules for C-130s.
New Airmen are more comfortable with VR, and the command wants to take advantage of that “as much as possible. We’re not there yet, but we are looking very closely at those investments and trying to accelerate them to get more availability for both training and for missions,” Van Ovost said.
The ability of Airmen to work independently in digital ways is proving useful for the Air Force, and AMC wants to continue down that path by encouraging software development to address issues the command faces, Van Ovost said. “Because they are so talented, and curious, and they want to make a difference,” she said. “We need to give them the platforms to do that with, so they should be comfortable operating in areas that are not just black and white. … We want to give them training to be able to do that.”
The Air Force as a whole is encouraging individual Airmen to learn how to do more than just their main job, letting units deploy with a smaller footprint for combat operations under the “agile combat employment” model. Within AMC, the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center and the command’s Contingency Response Wings have led this effort. From 2012-13, Van Ovost was the vice commander of the Air Expeditionary Center with oversight of contingency response and expeditionary tactics development. The center was the source of the doctrine on “what a multi-capable Airman is,” and worked with both Pacific Air Forces and U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa to build the concept of operations for agile combat development.
“We are key,” she said. “We are the foundation to be able to train the multi-capable Airmen to do the work, whether it’s turning airplanes at a forward location, to determining the feasibility of a forward location to take airplanes from C-130s to helicopters in for the node,” she said. “We are leveraging the experience of our [contingency response wings] and the Expeditionary Center and the folks that teach the doctrine to develop this multi-capable Airman, and then this development and training that would then be exported for all of our Airmen across the Air Force that are going to take part in agile combat employment.”
Reuniting With AMC
Now sworn in, her first order of business is to go with AMC’s new command chief on a listening tour.
“From my perch on the Joint Staff and on the Air Staff, I was always able to hear the great successes of Air Mobility Command, and what they’ve been doing to ensure we had a power projection for our nation,” she said. “But, it’s time for me to listen, the strategic environment has changed since I’ve left this command. And I need to listen to the Airmen to understand the current problems that they face, and challenges, and make sure that we’ve characterized it correctly here at headquarters.”
The listening tour comes as the service, under direction of previous Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright and former Chief of Staff retired Gen. David L. Goldfein—who Van Ovost served as director of staff for two and a half years—started the service looking inward at issues of prejudice and ways to improve inclusion in the wake of unrest across the nation. The Air Force has diversity inclusion managers at all of its wings and the Air Staff has directed unconscious bias training to address these issues. The command, and the rest of the service, is reviewing tens of thousands of responses to anonymous surveys that have come back detailing Airmen’s experience with racism and prejudice in the ranks.
“We’re carefully, but understandably, teeing up these difficult conversations at the wing level, these small group conversations to get feedback, to ensure that we’re candid, [and] respectfully going after people’s diverse and different ideas about how they’re being treated,” she said.
On the Air Staff, Van Ovost worked with Goldfein and other service leaders to address impediments to career progress that women in the Air Force experience. Recently, this has included changing flight gear and uniforms to better fit women, changing the fitness test schedule for female Airmen who return from pregnancy, and getting rid of restrictions that most in the service didn’t even know existed. For example, she said she wasn’t aware that pregnant Airmen could not fly remotely piloted aircraft or go on alert status as a missileer until she saw the regulations on the books.
“Really, you could have blown me over with a feather, because I guess I wasn’t paying attention, but that regulation was still out there,” she said. “And immediately, we rescinded it. But it just goes to show you that we weren’t thinking, we weren’t questioning.”
AMC plays a large role in this effort, with command representatives serving on the Women’s Initiative Team that is reviewing these issues. The command alone has more than 50 percent of the Air Force’s female pilots, and leads some of the uniform policies and other restrictions in a “cognizant, disciplined manner,” she said. The command does, after all, have the only female four-star leader, but there’s more to do, she said.
“We’ve made good progress,” she said. “I wouldn’t say great. We’ve made good progress.”