Air Mobility Command leader inspires Delaware aviation students

Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost talks with aviation and ROTC students Tuesday. On her visit to Delaware, Gen. Van Ovost met with about a dozen Delaware State University and University of Delaware students at the Delaware Airpark to talk about aviation. (Delaware State News/Brooke Schultz)

DOVER — Eliana Rothwell grew up in a small town in Colorado, where wildfires are part of her memory — as are the pilots who flew overhead to fight them.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re like real-life superheroes,’” recalled Ms. Rothwell, a junior at Delaware State University. “So I wanted to do something similar to that and that’s when I was introduced to aviation.”

Ms. Rothwell was among a group of DSU and University of Delaware aviation and ROTC students who gathered at the Delaware Airpark hangar Tuesday morning to meet U.S. Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, who serves as commander of Air Mobility Command.

As Gen. Van Ovost stood in the hangar, red-tailed DSU planes behind her, she told the students there are three groups of people who had an influence on her, guiding her to where she is now.

There were the people who came before her: Sally Ride, the first American woman to be an astronaut; Amelia Earhart; and the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black military aviators.

Then the people who walked alongside her, the ones who encouraged her, picked her up when she was down.

“Then there are those behind you, people like you, who have the inspiration in their eyes, the motivation, the hunger,” she said. “They want. They understand. They see you and they say, ‘I’m going to do that too. I just need an opportunity.’”

You have an obligation, she said, to the people walking alongside you, and those behind you.

It’s a message she has taken to heart.

“I’ve been on this path in the Air Force, trying to make things better for the people behind me,” she said, noting she’s sought to fix some regulations, getting waivers for women who are pregnant and taking on initiatives to target diversity.

Gen. Van Ovost’s career began in high school, when she took an interest in aviation. She was able to work with planes — not unlike those in the hangar — fueling them, cleaning bugs off the windscreen.

“Anything I could do to crawl my way closer to climb inside the cockpit is what I did,” she said. “I was able to get my pilot’s license before I got my driver’s license.”

Gen. Van Ovost graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy, before the Air Force allowed women in combat. But when the opportunity arose, she took it.

Today, Gen. Van Ovost leads a command that oversees the air mobility mission in support of the joint force, allies and partners with a fleet of nearly 1,100 aircraft. The command — which provides global mobility from more than 100 locations worldwide — includes the 18th Air Force, the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center, the 618th Air Operations Center and 17 wings and two groups.

“Your aspirations may be different,” she told the students. “Maybe it’s military, maybe it’s civilian. But the most important thing is you capitalize on each opportunity. … You have to take action yourself.”

It was only a few months ago that DSU was at the Airpark hangar, celebrating FLIGHT — known as Fostering Leadership and Inclusion by Growing HBCU Training Act.

The act intends to lower the barriers to ROTC participation for students at HBCUs and minority institutions by providing funding and resources to help the many ROTC students who must commute to host institutions for classes. It encourages partnerships between institutions and nearby military bases — like DSU to the Dover Air Force Base. Its goals are also to supplement flight costs for ROTC members enrolled at HBCUs.

Gen. Van Ovost said diversity is a strength in the military, and in the industry of aviation.

“We would like the Air Force to reflect the public that’s eligible to come into the military,” she said. “This is one way, having these kinds of scholarships.”

She noted that the Air Force has “upped our game” with HBCU scholarship and outreach programming, such as the Aim High Flight Academy.

“We’ll take you for three weeks, inspire you for aviation — which again you don’t have to become military about — inspire you in STEM, get you some mentoring and get you sold on it,” she said.

The hope is also to bring resources closer to larger groups of people.

“If you don’t see it, you don’t know it’s even there,” she said. “Just like when people don’t live near an airport. They don’t even think that this is an opportunity. It’s so important, especially early on.”

Standing before the students, she asked if any of them remember standing at a fenceline, peeking up to see the planes take off.

That resonated with Ms. Rothwell.

“It’s so empowering to see females who have achieved so much and I really admire and look up to her,” she said.

Matthew Cunningham, a junior at DSU who is a reservist in the Air Force, agreed, noting how she talked about lighting a way for others.

“A lot of people do mention to pay things forward and she had a great way of saying that and saying that, no matter where you are, even as a general, you need people in front of you, behind you and beside you, always needing an extra push or always being able to give someone a pull,” he said.

He recalled when a family member visited him while he was in training, that he was thrown “in a plane with an instructor.”

He took to it quickly.

“It was scary at first, but once I started turning and climbing and stuff, it was incredible and I thought, ‘People can get paid for this? That’s absurd,’” he said. “That pretty much paved my way.”

Staff writer Brooke Schultz can be reached at 741-8272 or bschultz@newszap.com.