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Libya Airstrikes Make Woodward First Woman to Lead U.S. Air War

U.S. Air Force Major General Margaret Woodward
Woodward is the first woman to lead a combat air campaign. Source: U.S. Air Force via Bloomberg

The U.S. Air Force general directing the airstrikes over Libya has flown aerial tankers into battle and commanded the pilots of Air Force One -- and is now the first woman to lead a combat air campaign.

Major General Margaret Woodward, 51, was in charge of the 17th Air Force, a unit that supports humanitarian and peacekeeping missions in Africa, when she was ordered to set up the United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone over Libya.

In the 11 days since, U.S. and coalition aircraft have flown more than 1,400 sorties. They have bombed Muammar Qaddafi’s air defenses and helped push Qaddafi’s army back from the edge of Benghazi in eastern Libya to his hometown of Sirte, 570 kilometers (340 miles) to the west. Only one allied plane, a Boeing Co. F-15E, was lost -- to equipment failure. Both fliers in the jet ejected and were rescued.

That the execution looks smooth is no surprise, said Michael M. Dunn, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who is president and chief executive officer of the Air Force Association, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that promotes air power and looks after the interests of Air Force veterans.

“Look at her background,” he said, noting how Woodward has flown in wartime and commanded two Air Force wings and an operations group. “She’s battle-tested. And those were tough wings.”

Banned from Combat

A 1982 graduate of Arizona State University, Woodward earned advanced degrees at the National War College in Washington and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. When she entered the Air Force in 1983, women were banned from flying in combat. After earning her pilot’s wings, she became an instructor on the Northrop Grumman Corp. T-38, a plane used to train future F-15 and F-16 fighter pilots. Her husband, Dan, who retired two years ago as an Air Force brigadier general, also served as a T-38 instructor.

“I was still smarting under the fact that I couldn’t go fly a fighter and women couldn’t fly in combat. Thankfully, that changed over time,” Woodward told the Tampa Tribune in a 2005 interview. “Generally, you’re accepting of it, but there are times when it just all piles up on you, and you kind of lash out against it.”

Aerial Refueling

Woodward soon moved to the Boeing KC-135 tanker, an aerial gas station. She refueled warplanes in flight during the 1989 invasion of Panama and the 1999 campaign against Serbian forces in Kosovo and commanded refueling missions for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. She has accumulated nearly 4,000 hours of flight time.

“Maggie was always very proud to be a tanker person” since that allowed her fly in combat, retired Air Force Lieutenant General William Welser III said in a interview. He was Woodward’s commander when she was selected to run MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.

“My heart smiles every time I look at a KC-135,” Woodward told the St. Petersburg Times in a 2005 interview. “Sort of like people looking at a 1957 Chevy.”

At MacDill, Woodward led the 6th Air Mobility Wing, one of the Air Force’s main transportation and refueling units, from 2005 to 2007. She went on to command the 89th Airlift Wing, which ferries top government officials around the globe and includes Air Force One. She could often be seen on television welcoming President George W. Bush back to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

Odyssey Dawn

“Her success in a male-dominated world comes because she is a smart operator,” said Dunn, who served at the Pentagon when Woodward worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “She understands air power, and her forte is she gets along with people -- the human element of command can be one that’s difficult for some to master.”

As the Joint Forces Air Component Commander for Operation Odyssey Dawn, Woodward is in charge of carrying out the United Nations mandate to protect Libyan civilians and enforce a no-fly zone over the country. She and liaison officers from allied countries choose targets and synchronize operations, said Lieutenant Colonel Dave Honchul, an Air Force spokesman at Ramstein Air Base, near Kaiserslauten, Germany.

Woodward’s command center is at Ramstein and most of the U.S. planes flying in the operation are based at Aviano Air Base, in northern Italy, Honchul said in an interview. The overall operation in Libya is run by U.S. Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear III, who is based on the USS Mount Whitney in the Mediterranean Sea.

Lifelong Ambition

Woodward’s dreams of flight started at a young age, her brother Mark Maslowski told the Tampa Tribune in 2005. She spent part of her childhood in India and Pakistan, where her father worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the government’s foreign aid and development arm, and the family later moved to Palo Alto, California.

Woodward and her husband have sometimes been posted together and sometimes apart, according to their service biographies. They have no children.

“She and Dan are a very unique married couple,” Welser said. “What makes them tick is their dedication to country, to mission and to each other. They each made it on their own, and they both made it together.”

When Woodward’s role was discussed recently on a blog on the website of Foreign Policy magazine, some commenters wondered whether a woman was capable of running a military campaign.

“She has proven herself through many years, and has the experience and the credentials and certainly the savvy to be doing the job she’s doing, because of her time in air mobility and her experience in combat,” Welser said. “They probably couldn’t have a better person than her doing that job.”

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