Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson took over the reins of the Air Force Academy during an Aug. 12 change-of-command ceremony. 'We want [cadets] to walk out the door with confidence but humility. To have pride but not hubris,' she said in an interview this month. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette via The Associated Pre)
It was an unlikely trajectory: The daughter of an Iowa grain farmer enters the Air Force Academy in 1977, the second class to include women. Today, she is the academy’s first female superintendent.
“It’s a tremendous honor to come back to my alma mater,” Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson said in an Oct. 17 interview reflecting on her career.
In 1976, when an academy liaison officer showed up for career day at Spencer High School, Johnson was a junior. Johnson’s father had served briefly in the Navy during World War II, but that was the extent of her family’s military tradition.
“I was a good student and a good athlete,” she said. The academy would give her the chance to prove both. It would also provide an opportunity to serve her country for a few years — or for a career.
“One of the wonderful things about Mom and Dad is they were very supportive of me being here. They would also be supportive if I realized it weren’t for me,” Johnson said.
Johnson has said her cadet years were not without their troubles.
“When I showed up, it was about change, and not everybody is happy about change,” she said in an August interview.
Johnson persevered. She played varsity basketball all four years at the academy, becoming the second, all-time leading scorer. (She’d honed her jump shot on the farm, thanks to the position of the goal on the family grain bin, she said.)
Johnson was also the academy’s first female cadet wing commander and its first female Rhodes Scholar. She earned her wings in 1984 and, she said, proved her worth at the controls of C-141 cargo planes and KC-10 aerial fueling planes. Still in her 20s, she commanded aircraft crews of men old enough to be her father.
“That opens a lot of doors,” she said.
Johnson describes her career as eclectic: She served as command pilot throughout Air Mobility Command and commanded the 97th Operations Group at Altus Air Force Base, Okla., and the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. She was Air Force aide to the president, director of personnel for AMC and director of Air Force public affairs at the Pentagon. She served as NATO’s deputy chief of staff for operations and intelligence.
As a cadet, Johnson never considered returning to the academy one day to lead it.
“I didn’t think that far ahead,” she said.
Nor did she give it a whole lot of thought when she returned to the academy as a captain in 1989 as an assistant professor of political science and a T-41 instructor pilot.
During her senior year, Johnson recalled, she was asked if she thought she would stay in for 35 years. “At the time, it seemed like an awfully long time. Now, it doesn’t seem so far off.”
Johnson arrived at the academy two months ago.
“The biggest change is the way you communicate,” she said. “Back then we waited in line to call home once a week. You know how dramatically different that is. We’d send a runner across the terrazzo if we wanted to communicate something quickly.”
The job is challenging. “In the short-run obviously, the government shutdown [was] a big challenge for the entire Air Force and as an installation,” Johnson said. “There is also the continuing reality of fiscal constraints.”
Her goal over the next year is to home in on the academy’s priorities. “Sometimes, these kinds of challenges can really focus an organization on what’s really important, and maybe draw out more creativity to make sure we optimize our efforts.”
Johnson said she also wants to continue to ensure a culture of dignity and respect. “It’s important especially here when we’re developing future leaders.
“We have a unique mission here. We take the responsibility really seriously. We want them to walk out the door with confidence but humility. To have pride but not hubris.”
The academy, like the Air Force, has increased its focus on support for victims of sexual assault, she said.
“It’s really important people know they can trust the system,” Johnson said. “Prevention is also a big aspect.”
The academy has brought in experts on sexual assault prevention and response, including Chris Kilmartin, a psychology professor from the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. Kilmartin, who has worked with the military before, will spend a year at the academy teaching classes on gender roles and interpersonal violence.
Cadets “really want us to be more frank about it, maybe more than my generation was. It’s a way forward to get at this as much as we can,” Johnson said.
“I’m really fortunate to have a great team here,” she said. “I like to work in a collaborative environment and empower these smart and capable people to focus on expertise and apply creativity and initiative. If we’re going in the same direction, that will happen.”
Johnson said it’s a lot like playing basketball — or flying aircraft with big crews. “I like a team environment, the sense of winning together and making progress.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.