Tara Nolan | A Fighter and a Pilot

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Tara Nolan is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force Reserves, a military aircraft pilot, and a competitor in dressage who has recently published Out of the Saddle: 9 Steps to Improve Your Horseback Riding.  Tara is currently in the process of discovering her next dream.

When I was a senior in high school, my mom dragged me to an air show—I went sullenly.  After all, my childhood revolved around babysitting for my large family as I was the oldest of six kids and escaping to the barn to play with my horses every chance I could get.  Why would I be interested in an air show?  I wanted to be a veterinarian and take care of puppies. But, when I saw the Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s F-16 demonstration team, perform, they set my heart racing.  Later that day, when I came across a female pilot at one of the static displays, excitedly I asked her what it was like to fly a fighter jet.  She replied, “I don’t know, they don’t let women fly them.”  Stunned, this did set my competitive type-A personality into motion.  When I decided to apply to the Air Force Academy, no one believed me, even my parents. My parents had been hippies; my mom had even attended Woodstock.  So I filled out my applications by myself.

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Congress passed the law in 1993 allowing women to fly fighters, so I graduated just as women were being allowed into the fighter jets I wanted to fly.  It didn't occur to me that I might not get a pilot slot.  But, it was also a year of massive budget cuts; only 20 percent of my class got pilot training slots instead of the normal 100 percent. I wasn't one of them.  Even so, I was excited to start working in the “real” Air Force, to do something besides study and march in formation and have military inspections. When I was assigned to logistics, my career field assignment, I actually found it pretty interesting.   Logistics is really a problem-solving position where you are given a task such as we need to get twenty people prepared and ready to go spend 90 days in the Middle East and they leave in six days.  Growing up as the oldest of six children, this was right up my alley.  I knew how to organize, entertain and direct a crew of kids; adults are a snap in comparison.  The rub for me was that I still wanted to be a pilot.  I’m not sure if I wanted to fly so much as I wanted to have the best job available in the Air Force world.  I mean as an 18-year-old woman, why else would I even be in the military if I wasn’t going to have the chance to be in charge of a fighter squadron?

More determined than ever, I set off to get a pilot slot asking not, “Can I?” but instead, “How can I?” Four years later I was selected to go to pilot training from my logistics career field.  I entered the training excited and ready to be the best fighter pilot in my class.  This is when I started to encounter the invisible rules.  One instructor pilot pulled me aside early on and told me that I needed to quit smiling because it came across as flirting. One of my classmates accused me of being a Pollyanna because I admitted that I thought learning to fly should be fun.  Because I was late to start pilot training I was the same rank or higher than most of my instructors.  When I received an award from my previous assignments, this did not endear me to them.  I was assigned to fly with the least experienced instructors most of the time so it became impossible for me to determine if I was untalented or just not getting the best instruction possible.

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For the first time in my life, being humble, hard-working and goal-oriented were actually detractors.  I didn’t have the skill set to separate emotion and social politics from my learning and flight progress.  Soon each setback was not viewed through an objective lens of a skill I needed to work on but as a personal shortfall in my character and competence.

When I became an aircraft commander flying the C-130 it was almost a separate experience.  The C-130 is a large airplane that can hold 80 people or carry one big army tank in the back.  This plane is able to open up the back door in flight so the army troops can jump out or we can drop equipment into locations that do not have a runway available to land on. The plane was definitely designed for people who can pee standing up and I can tell you the women came up with some unique solutions.

When focused on the mission and capabilities of the aircraft, I enjoyed hopping around Iraq and Afghanistan delivering supplies and bringing guys home.  When I looked at the airplane itself I was reminded of how much of a failure I was not to have been good enough to get the fighter jet.  It is amazing how you can know logically how stupid this thought pattern was but emotions are hard to override.

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Decision time arrived for me again as I approached the end of my ten-year military commitment.  I started exploring options much like a young college student might.  Since I had graduated from a military academy, choice and self-determination were some new toys to play with and I was eager to answer the questions of “what do I want to be when I grow up?”  Being in the military had ingrained in me a strong sense of duty and ethics but I also wanted to go in a direction that allowed me more independence and choice in my daily life. In the military, your job is training and going where you’re told to do your job and men and women are all paid the same.  Entering the business world I’d learned that women are usually paid 70 cents to the dollar compared to men.  Here I was at another turning point in my life and this familiar issue of gender interfering with my skills was here again. Interesting.

A big difference between me and a young student was my life experience and I knew that I didn’t want to start at the bottom and work my way up but pick what I wanted to do and find some great mentors to work with and learn the ropes.  The academic aspect of my new business was well, academic.  What I sought out was guidance about the invisible rules like I’d encountered in pilot training.

Tara and Lou HoltzTara and former Notre Dame football coach, Lou Holtz
There is the old saying that when you are ready your teacher will arrive.  I connected with a business coach and honed in on the missing skill sets I needed to run a business.  I felt a bit naïve and foolish but I decided that my ideal business would be fun, help people, and make money.  I was raised with the idea that making money was not noble.  And, from my military experiences, I absorbed the idea that having fun and a dedication to the mission were mutually exclusive.

So, here I am daring to dream that my life and my livelihood can intersect in a fun and abundant way. I’ve had several mentors tell me these past few years that I have all the pieces to be wildly successful and I am still moving the puzzle parts around trying to figure out how to make it all work.  At this point, it seems like the best plan of action is to keep communicating and sharing and absorbing the messages that align with my current goals of happiness and service and abundance.  So I don’t know what will come next—but this is what I’ve learned thus far, and I'll just keep moving forward.

How did you feel reading Tara's piece?

I have to agree — she does have all the pieces to be wildly successful.  Any suggestions?

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