GLENVILLE — Col. Michele Kilgore has worn the Air Force uniform since five days after her high school graduation and flown everything from fighter jets to tankers in the 30 years since.
After she took over as commander of the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing in October, she added the C-130 to the long list of aircraft she’s piloted. While she won’t name a favorite on that list, she will say she thoroughly enjoys flying the red-tailed, four-engine transport planes that regularly hum through the skies of the Capital Region.
“It’s a pilot’s plane,” she said. “If you like to fly airplanes, this is the plane for you.”
It is the first wing command for the San Diego native, who has flown nearly 4,000 hours since graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1992, gradually gaining rank and responsibility in a wide-ranging career.
The 48-year-old Kilgore lives outside Buffalo with her husband, Col. Robert Kilgore, a Clifton Park native who is commander of the 107th Attack Wing at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.
Because both are the same rank and both are members of the Air National Guard, they can’t serve in the same unit.
So she stays at an apartment near Stratton Air National Guard Base and commutes home on weekends to spend time with him and their daughters Erica, 20, and Abby, 8. (Right now she drives a car like the rest of us, but the two-pilot family has acquired a Piper Lance, a five-seat single-engine plane that will reduce the travel time by more than half.)
Late last year, Kilgore completed flight training in Arkansas on the C-130, the aircraft used by the 109th Airlift Wing. It is the eighth plane she’s qualified to fly.
Last month, she made her first-ever trip to Antarctica with the 109th during Operation Deep Freeze, the annual series of support flights for scientists working there.
Cleared for takeoff
Kilgore is the third generation of her family with a multidecade military career, though the previous two were each in different services: Her grandfather was a Navy sailor and her father flew the F-4 Phantom for the Marine Corps. Both earned purple hearts for combat wounds, in World War II and Vietnam, respectively.
Kilgore has followed the traditional path of career military officers, gaining responsibility and rank through the years while gradually moving from trigger-pulling tactical roles to administrative strategic duties.
This continuum of doing, learning and training is designed by the military to build life experience as much as leadership skills, so that one learns to follow before learning to lead, understands why something happens as much as what to do about it, and knows when to delegate a task to a subordinate.
“You should do everything that only you can do at your level,” Kilgore said, describing the command hierarchy.
It’s not that lower tasks are below the commander’s dignity, it’s that the higher tasks are above the subordinates’ ability, experience and authority.
Even as she has gained experience and rank, Kilgore has spent a lot of time in the cockpit.
As a second lieutenant fresh out of the academy, Kilgore got the now-discontinued course of flight training that gave broad rather than specialized instruction. Today’s new Air Force pilots specialize in a single category of aircraft early on and usually stick with it through their careers, but she did not.
As a result, she’s piloted an unusually broad array of planes in her career, including the little C-12J turboprop transport, two significantly different variants of the F-16 fighter, the EA-6B electronic warfare jet (on an exchange program with the Navy), the hulking KC-10 fuel tanker and the remote-controlled MQ-9 Reaper.
She doesn't have a favorite — “it’s really hard to compare them, it’s apples and oranges” — but she had some of her most exciting moments in the F-16.
Kilgore’s F-16 was struck by lightning on one flight and was narrowly missed by Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery on another. The AAA shell exploded right between her plane and a wingman’s, but the shrapnel missed both.
“Being shot at by triple-A is an eye-opening experience,” she said.
Her newest ride is the C-130 Hercules, the workhorse transport plane of the U.S. military since the 1950s. It’s one of the great aircraft designs of all time, having flown for more than half the history of powered aviation and still in service with dozens of nations in numerous roles far beyond basic cargo — from ambulance to gun platform to flying gas station to electronic signal jammer.
The 109th Airlift Wing is famous for the red-tailed, ski-equipped LC-130, which it uses on flights to Greenland and Antarctica. It has 10 LC-130 Skibirds and two gray C-130s without skis — Wheelbirds, which it uses for training flights so as to put less wear and tear on the Skibirds.
As if husband-wife wing commanders wasn’t an unlikely enough coincidence in upstate New York military aviation, Kilgore’s switch to C-130s is another: She moved from an MQ-9 unit in Syracuse to the C-130 unit in Glenville after Col. Robert Kilgore transitioned the C-130 unit in Niagara Falls to an MQ-9 unit. But it’s just a coincidence, she said of her and her husband’s transitions — nothing done by design.
“Sometimes changing planes is really not up to you,” she said.
Running an air wing is like running a business in some ways.
While she doesn’t have to turn a profit, earn market share or beat out other units, Kilgore has to keep her workforce motivated, focused, content and competent just like any private-sector CEO must, so that duties and missions are fulfilled.
The 109th Airlift Wing is a 1,259-person operation with a $121 million annual economic impact on the Capital Region. Its personnel and machines may head off anywhere in the world to aid scientific research, provide humanitarian aid or support combat operations, but a lot of its biggest impact is right here at home: The wing partners with community organizations and its airmen are a long-term part of the fabric of the community, as there is no base housing.
Kilgore is essentially the CEO of the wing, leading the executives who run the component groups of the wing.
“My job in the Air National Guard is to meet the taskings of the governor and meet the taskings of the president,” Kilgore said, giving the bottom-line definition of her job.
“I just set the priorities,” she said. The group commanders follow through.
The wing is unlike a business in many ways, particularly competition — it doesn’t fight for market share against a similar organization the way Pepsi and Coke do, and it does share ideas and collaborate with other military units in a way that Pepsi and Coke don’t.
The wing is like a business in other respects, particularly its personnel requirements, Kilgore said.
“It’s always about finding motivated people,” she explained. Recruiting competent people who like what they do reduces turnover and improves the unit’s performance. In a secondary benefit, personnel who serve extended enlistments in the Guard can become invested in the community, with the circular effect of supporting the community as airmen and supporting the wing as taxpayers.
The other benefit of good employees is that they can be led, rather than supervised. Kilgore does not like to micromanage or browbeat.
“I have a more collaborative leadership style,” she said. “I can go full autocratic, and things will happen, but it’s not sustainable.”
If she explains the mission and the priorities, a good team won’t need to continually come back to her for direction.
“They don’t need me to tell them what to do, they are the experts,” Kilgore said.
This frees her for the larger-picture task of keeping the wing on course and on task. Missions can be assigned, planned and executed on short notice, but institutional change is a much more deliberate process, unfolding over years and harder to accomplish if the unit is not on track to start with. And as long as those changes take to do correctly, they’re even harder to reverse if done incorrectly, Kilgore said.
With human lives and national security potentially at risk through failure, the commander's need to keep the operation on track and on mission is all the more important.
The higher up one goes in the civilian business world, the more heavily male it is, and military leadership is similar.
Kilgore is the first woman to command the 109th Airlift Wing in its 47-year history, a role that also gives her command of Stratton Air National Guard Base. (Bases that are larger or are home to multiple units, such as Niagara, often have separate commanders for wing and base.)
As a woman, she is in a distinct minority among the top military brass, which she said is due to there being fewer women overall in the Armed Services.
Kilgore has found no gender barrier to career advance in the military. While she can’t compare it to civilian life, having been in uniform since high school, she feels the military system of promotion must be at least as fair to women as the civilian system, and likely more so.
Military promotion is based on a very clearly defined and quantifiable set of measures, Kilgore said. Everyone is assessed for promotion the same way, everyone is paid the same money.
“Any time your record can come into play, I think it’s easier,” she explained.
That said, she does feel the same work-life compression that her female friends in the civilian world also face with their multiple roles as mothers, daughters, wives and business leaders.
Kilgore finds it funny that no one ever asks her husband if he struggles to balance parenthood with the long hours and heavy responsibility of leading a military unit. That’s exactly what he does, but people assume otherwise because he’s a man.
“Women are still the primary caregivers of children in this country,” she said.
As a wing commander, resolving other obstacles that face service members — such as discrimination and sexual harassment — isn’t as straightforward, because it’s an extension of society as a whole, Kilgore said: Whatever is happening off base is likely to happen on base, as well.
Long before the spate of harassment allegations against men in positions of authority captured recent national attention, the 109th began education efforts to prevent problems as disparate as sexual harassment and suicide.
Through the decades, Kilgore said, the military has integrated people of various races, genders and sexual orientations, working to overcome the preconceptions and prejudices of society in the process.
Fighting sexual harassment is no different.
“We’re a product of our environment on the outside. So whatever problems are going in society are probably mirrored inside the gate,” she said.
“We have a bell curve of people, too. So we have to inoculate ourselves. … We’re going to have discipline issues and people are going to say things and be hurtful. And so we educate people at that level. … There’s no time for them to come running back to me to go, ‘Hey what do you want me to do?’” Kilgore said.
“We don’t tolerate any of that because our job is to fight and win the nation’s wars. If we’re focused on wartime and domestic taskings, I don’t really care if you guys don’t like each other — I need you to work together. And the only way you work together is if you have mutual respect.”
The structure of the military helps this happen, she said.
“There’s a reason it’s called a uniform — it makes us all the same,” Kilgore said. “When you’re here, we’re all the same. That’s one of the nice parts about uniformity: It gives everyone an equal playing field and it balances out some of the inequities that come with the birth lottery.”