New Air Force Secretary's Aviation Roots Run Deep, Back to CAP Commander & Grandfather
Wilson Family's Flying Legacy Dates Back to World War I
By Steve Cox
Dr. Heather A. Wilson, confirmed Monday as the 24th secretary of the U.S. Air Force, has a very special connection to Civil Air Patrol.
Her beloved grandfather, George G. “Scotty” Wilson, was among the original members of CAP, joining the New Hampshire Wing during the earliest days of World War II and later serving as one of the first commanders of the wing.
Scotty Wilson’s influence on soon-to-be Secretary Wilson is undeniable.
“He certainly told a lot of flying stories,” said Wilson, recalling her grandfather’s tales of being a barnstorming pilot in New England in the 1920s and 1930s and towing targets for Civil Air Patrol in the 1940s.
“He and I were always pretty close,” she said. “I felt he had a sweet spot for me.”
That became clear when, at the age of 17, she told him she was going to be a part of one of the first coed classes at the U.S. Air Force Academy. She had applied for the academy in high school in Keene, New Hampshire, just two years after it began accepting women.
Wilson grew up around aviation and hoped to become a pilot like her grandfather and father. “That looked different and interesting to me,” she said.
Though emotional about her decision, Scotty Wilson responded with words of encouragement. “He told me, ‘I flew with some women in World War II and they were pretty good sticks. So I think that would be OK.’ ”
The women he flew with were WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots), who often flew the home skies with Civil Air Patrol during World War II. Pilots in that era steered their aircraft with a control stick located in the center of the cockpit between the flier’s legs. Hence, the reference to pilots as “sticks.”
When she made her Air Force Academy announcement, Wilson said she didn’t fully understand the full scope of her grandfather’s life, nor the magnitude of the moment.
“I remember he was crying, the only time I saw him cry,” she said. Wilson later realized her grandfather was 17 when he flew with Britain’s Royal Flying Corps (later the Royal Air Force) during World War I and that he had sent a son to the Air Force — her father — at that age.
“At the time, I don’t think I fully understood what a wonderful life he had led,” she said.
Scotty Wilson immigrated to New Hampshire from Aberdeen, Scotland, where he was born in 1899. He served as a lieutenant in the Royal Air Force before moving to America in 1922 and making a living in New England’s fledgling aviation industry.
“He was a mechanic as well as a pilot,” said Wilson. “I think you had to do both back then.”
She said her grandfather helped clear the site and served as the first operator of Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in New Hampshire, which was the airport counterpart to what is now known as Boston Logan International. He later helped open the airport in Keene, New Hampshire, where many members of the Wilson family still live today.
As World War II began, Scotty Wilson yearned to serve, as he had previously in another land. He became the fourth member ever of CAP’s New Hampshire Wing and immediately was named commander of the Keene squadron. He rose to the rank of captain and became the wing training and operations officer and later the wing executive officer.
He was actively involved in the CAP courier service operating out of Grenier Army Airfield from 1943 into 1944, and was a member of Tow Target Unit No. 5, based at Otis Field in Falmouth, Massachusetts, from the fall of 1944 to late January 1945. It was reported in October 1944 that Wilson completed his 1,000th hour of CAP active-duty flying for courier and tow target duty combined.
After World War II he continued his CAP service. In 1948 he was named commander of the New Hampshire Wing, a post he held for nearly six years. For his services, then-Col. Wilson received CAP’s Distinguished Service Award in 1954.
Wilson’s father, Doug, a U.S. Air Force veteran, was also a flier, taking to the skies over Keene when he was just 13. “My dad was a commercial pilot with Northeast Airlines, later Delta,” she said.
Flying was the family business, providing a unique upbringing centered on aviation. Wilson remembers her father’s experimental open-cockpit biplane hanging from the ceiling of their home in Keene when she was a child. She also recalls flying with her dad and her brothers at 4 and 5 years of age in his Piper Cub. “We would put pillows in the seat so I could see out,” she said.
Doug Wilson died in 1967, in a car crash, when Wilson was 7. But she and her brothers kept flying with the help of her grandfather, uncles and others. Wilson followed that passion for the skies to the Air Force Academy, where she graduated in 1982 as part of the academy’s third coed class.
At the academy she was the first woman to command basic training and the first woman vice wing commander. She later earned master’s and doctoral degrees as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in England.
When Wilson is sworn in next week, she will become the first Air Force Academy graduate to serve as secretary of the Air Force and the first service secretary in President Donald J. Trump’s new administration.
When Trump nominated Wilson for the post in January, he said, “Heather Wilson is going to make an outstanding secretary of the Air Force. Her distinguished military service, high level of knowledge and success in so many different fields gives me great confidence that she will lead our nation’s Air Force with the greatest competence and integrity.”
Wilson served as an Air Force officer in Europe during the 1980s, rising to the rank of captain, and was on the National Security Council staff under President George H.W. Bush during the fall of the Berlin Wall.
She became the first Republican woman to represent New Mexico in the U.S. House of Representatives, from 1998-2009. During her five terms she served as a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and chaired the House Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence. She also was a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
More recently, Wilson served as the first female president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City. She held the position since 2013. “Being a college president is the best job,” she said, adding that her favorite thing about it was working directly with the students.
Living in the Midwest was also a plus. “I fly a Cessna 152,” said Wilson, an instrument-rated private pilot. She said South Dakota and its neighboring states provided many avenues of adventure for her and her husband, Jay Hone, a retired Air Force colonel. They have three adult children.
In the end, however, it was the call to service — one she and members of her family have answered times before — that led Wilson to her newest post at the Pentagon, as the top civilian in the U.S. Department of the Air Force.
It is a job she takes seriously. “America and our vital national interests continue to be threatened,” she said. “I will do my best, working with our men and women in the military, to strengthen American air and space power to keep the country safe.”
Wilson has already mapped out her top priorities as secretary of the Air Force:
- “Restoring readiness of the force.”
- “Modernization,” including improvements in Air Force fighters, tankers, bombers, munitions, intelligence platforms, the nuclear deterrent force and space capabilities.
- “Development of leaders,” to identify and develop leaders, starting at the squadron level.
- “Research for the future.” Through her family, Wilson brings “a historical perspective” to this priority. “My grandfather flew just after the Wright brothers and lived to see a man walk on the moon,” she said. ”Innovation is the hallmark of the American Air Force. We have to keep moving that forward.”
The influence of Scotty Wilson lives on, through his granddaughter — the new secretary of the Air Force.
Information for this article was contributed by Col. Frank Blazich, CAP national historian