The summer before sixth grade, Cindy Dawson went to an air show with her father and was enamored by the flight maneuvers the pilots performed.
“I just thought that would be the coolest thing that anybody could ever do,” she said, especially having already heard stories about her grandfather flying bombers during World War II with the Army Air Corps.
So by the first day of school, she had already decided what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“I was going to attend the Air Force Academy and I was going to graduate and I was going to be a pilot,” she remembers saying in front of the whole class.
Then her teacher laughed in her face.
“He said, ‘You can’t do that. Nice girls don’t join the military,’ ” she recalled.
“I said, ‘Not only can I, but I will,’ ” she remembered. “He motivated me in a way that probably nobody else could have because I had to prove him wrong.”
Dawson graduated in the top of her class at the Air Force Academy in 2005, then trained to be a KC-135 Stratotanker pilot. While deployed to Qatar in 2009, she was the co-pilot in one of the first all-female KC-135 flight crews.
And on Friday, more than 1,700 KC-135 flight hours later, the airmen of Fairchild Air Force Base’s newly reactivated 97th Air Refueling Squadron saluted their new commander during an assumption of command ceremony: Lt. Col. Dawson.
The new commander of the fourth squadron in Fairchild’s 92nd Air Refueling Wing, the largest force of air refueling tankers in the world, had her grandfather’s pilot wings pinned to her chest when she officially took her charge.
“This is actually the culmination of one of my dreams,” Dawson said, about 13 years after she served under her first KC-135 squadron commander, Col. Stan Lawrie. “To be a part of this unit at Team Fairchild makes it all the more special.”
Dawson was first assigned to Fairchild in 2017, but she’s spent about 10 months of that time deployed overseas and training in Oklahoma. She’s been preparing to take command of the 97th since she returned from leading a squadron in Qatar in April.
The senior enlisted member of her squadron is Master Sgt. Matthew Hunsinger, who was in one of Dawson’s first squadrons.
“We had discussions before about how we would do it [lead] differently when we flew long missions together and he was my boom operator,” she said. “I feel very fortunate to have him on my team.”
To get ready for her new unit at Fairchild, Dawson and her leadership team have had to build up some basic infrastructure, like identify office space and buy computers and furniture.
The 97th was last active at Fairchild from 1994, when the military was building up for conflict in the Middle East, to 2004, when the Air Force consolidated its units and aircraft.
After its formation in 1941, the squadron was a reconnaissance unit based out of McChord Field near Ft. Lewis. It later became a bomber squadron.
After the 97th was designated a refueling unit in 1949, it was the first to use booms to refuel other aircraft during flight, which is standard practice today, with modified B-29s. It was also the first squadron to air refuel at night.
Maj. Gen. Sam Barrett, commander of the 18th Air Force and former 97th airman, said Dawson has big shoes to fill in her new role.
One of the squadron’s notable past commanders was retired Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward, who went on to be the first woman to direct an air campaign in 2011 and directed the investigation of the Air Force’s 2012 sexual assault scandal.
“The 97th Air Refueling Squadron boasts a rich heritage of star performers who have authored an impressive history for us to stand upon,” Dawson said during a speech at the assumption of command ceremony. “They embodied our Latin motto, pro potentia inter astra, which roughly translates to ‘for strength among the stars.’ ”
As Col. Russell Davis, commander of the 92nd Operations Group, comprised of the flying squadrons in the 92nd Air Refueling Wing, removed the cover from the squadron’s guidon at the assumption of command ceremony, the banner unfurled along with more than two dozen campaign and award ribbons.
Then Davis passed the flagstaff to Dawson.
“As I watched our squadron form up, I got goosebumps,” Dawson said. “Just weeks ago, each of you belonged to different squadrons, but watching you come together just now, it was like watching individual stars come together to form our own new constellation.”
Dawson hopes to move her 24 squadron members into their renovated building within the next month, before another 22 or so airmen are assigned in January. By next fall, the squadron will have close to 86 members.
“It’s been a long effort to get here, the starting line. Now the real work begins,” Dawson told her squadron. “So let’s get after it.”
Dawson’s job will be to oversee day-to-day administrative operations, training and squadron flying missions.
The 97th’s KC-135 fleet will include some of the 12 KC-135s arriving from air bases around the country. The squadron will provide air refueling, cargo airlifts and medical evacuations for missions around the world.
Later this year, Fairchild’s KC-135s, now the the oldest plane in the Air Force, will begin getting upgraded positioning systems, called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, that she studied during graduate school at the Air Force Institute of Technology. Her background in computer science enabled her to further conversations about how the Air Force could protect the digital satellite data from adversaries.
But Dawson didn’t intend to fall in love with tankers when she entered the Air Force.
Nearing the end of her first solo flight while earning her license, Dawson watched a formation of four F-16 Fighting Falcons land after her while she waited to taxi her propeller plane.
“I’m getting pumped up,” she said. “Some day I’m going to do that.”
Then an air traffic controller told her to taxi into the gap between two of the fighter jets.
“And I was like, ‘This is so cool!’ There I am in my Cessna pushing up the power as fast as possible,” she remembers. “I wish I had a picture of it.”
But it turns out she gets air sick making the maneuvers fighter pilots are required to.
“I saw the air refueling platform as the way to still be a part of that mission,” she said, “but without having to turn and burn and yank and bank.”
Dawson compares flying a KC-135, which was designed in the ’50s and has no power steering, windows or automation, to driving an old bus.
“It takes some muscle, arm strength and some power to get behind that,” she said. “In the 135 community, we are true pilots.”
Dawson said she’s excited to see how women have come into more roles in tanker squadrons in recent years.
When Dawson first started, there were two other women in her whole squadron. And there are already four women assigned to the 97th under Dawson.
Her No. 1 role model is retired Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, who Dawson worked for when of she was an Air Force Academy computer science professor from 2013 to 2016 and Johnson was the superintendent.
Johnson “was from the class of 1981 that graduated from the Air Force Academy, the second class to ever have females,” Dawson said. “So she has risen up her entire career as the first woman in whatever capacity.”
Dawson said she hopes to inspire others like Johnson did for her and see a day when it’s no longer a surprise to have a female commander.
“That’s what it’s all about,” she said. “That’s why I come to work every day is hoping to make a difference for somebody the same way that people have made a difference for me.”
Editor’s note: This story has been changed to correct Cindy Dawson’s rank in her graduating class and the significance of her participation in an all-female flight crew over Qatar in 2009.