Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward became the first American woman to lead a combat air operation when the Air Force tapped her last month to establish the no-fly zone over Libya. Woodward, commander of the 17th Air Force and U.S. Air Forces Africa, has now handed command of the operation to NATO. Woodward spoke with National Journal from Germany. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ When you first got your wings, women were banned from flying in combat; now you’re the first American woman to command an air operation. How did you feel then, and how do you feel now?
WOODWARD Honestly, I never thought flying wasn’t an option until high school, where a guidance counselor said, “You know the Air Force doesn’t let women fly airplanes!” And I said, “Well, they’re going to change that because this is my destiny.” I just knew. It was one of those things. I credit my parents for never telling me that it was something that I couldn’t do.
NJ How did the operation go? What do you think the outcome will be?
WOODWARD I’m extremely proud of the team. They were able to accomplish everything that was asked of them to set up the conditions for a no-fly zone. [Libya’s Col. Muammar el-] Qaddafi hasn’t flown his planes since the start of operations, and the folks in Benghazi are safe—when, I think, they had faced certain massacre. We set the conditions that gave everybody time to work through political options that are out there and to enable some choices which wouldn’t have been there if Qaddafi had gotten the chance to overrun Benghazi.
NJ Could this be a model for future operations—the U.S. bringing its unique capabilities and then having allies take the lead?
WOODWARD The transition went very well. I think this might be a first in the history of warfare to be able to transition under combat operations and to have it go so smoothly. It is a great credit to NATO to be able to pick up the ball and run with it like they did. The difference [between this operation and others] was our ability to have an alliance we’re able to hand off to, especially when we’re so engaged elsewhere.
NJ What were you thinking about as the operation began?
WOODWARD The most amazing thing for me is the way the coalition came together. I’m sitting here [at Ramstein Air Base] planning this operation—really, at the last minute—and get a phone call from this two-star from England saying, “Hey, I’m sending my one-star over to you; he’s landing there in a couple hours, and he’s got a target list with him.” He shows up that night, and we’re starting to pore over our list together, and our French counterpart shows up that next morning. The three of us were, throughout that day, getting phone calls from Canadians, Belgians. It was almost surreal, to be honest with you, to have a coalition come together in that way.
NJ Was there another pivotal moment during the operation?
WOODWARD The night of the recovery that we did for the downed F-15 pilot. I had been [at the command center] at that point almost 24 hours, but nobody was going to leave the floor until we found out how our aircrew was. We’re hanging on to every word, every little typed text message we’re getting. But at one point, I looked up and saw this whole line of our coalition partners. They were staying, too. When we got the word that our aircrew had been picked up, the whole room exploded, and I remember turning and looking—and [our partners] were going crazy like everyone else was.
NJ From what we heard, the Libyan rebels treated the airmen well. How did that make you feel?
WOODWARD Very grateful—I can’t begin to tell you how good that felt. We were very tense that night because we did not know who was on the ground—we had a pilot down there who felt very vulnerable. There was some celebratory gunfire; we did not know what that gunfire was.
The pilot thought, potentially, he was being chased and tracked. He had just ejected and landed in what could be enemy territory. The pilot overhead put down a strafing line between him and the folks who were down on the ground. I know some folks were injured from that, and nobody would ever want that to have happened. But their graciousness in how they accepted being hurt under those circumstances, how they helped the downed aircrew members was just overwhelming to me—just another thing that conveyed to me that we were doing the right thing.
This article appears in the April 9, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.