Teri Poulton wanted to be an astronaut growing up. As a pilot in the US military, the Air Force Academy graduate, retired Lieutenant Colonel, and current head of BP’s national veterans outreach efforts ended up routinely doing something that doesn’t rank too far below space travel as far as risky and complex aviation feats go.
Poulton flew the AC-135 tanker plane, and then later piloted the C-17, one of the military’s workhorse transport aircraft. Aerial refuelling is key to the US Air Force’s operations — “From war to humanitarian relief, we’re part of everyone’s mission,” Poulton says.
It’s also incredibly dangerous. The planes fly as little as 12 feet apart from one another. One wrong move, and the aircraft can get suctioned into each other’s draft, creating a vortex that can doom both aircraft.
“For every movement that the tanker makes, the receiver has to make six moves to adjust,” she explains. “And the receivers are doing everything visually. They’re looking at nothing but a windscreen-view of the tanker.”
The pilot watches the tanker grow lager in the windscreen as the two planes meet within a single point in the sky. The pilot on the receiving end has to decelerate, while also powering the engines for a series of intricate maneuvers as the planes draw within distance of the tanker’s fuel boom.
“The aeroplanes are moving at all three dimensions at the same time,” Poulton emphasises. “All you’re doing is adjusting. Some pilots just see the movements quickly out of experience and some see it a little more slowly. And that’s where it gets really challenging.”
Refuelling in mid-air, or landing a two-ton behemoth on a dirt runway in the middle of a combat zone takes skill, concentration, and guts. Poulton mastered them over the course of a 20-year career as a military pilot.
As she explains, she partly following in her father’s footsteps. He earned 55 air medals as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, and piloted the recently introduced Cobra helicopter in combat. “He was legitimately a badass, but I don’t think I had that figured out until I was at the Air Force Academy and understood what helicopter aviators were doing in Vietnam,” she said.
Poulton graduated from the Academy in 1992. She was interviewing for civilian airline piloting jobs just a few days before the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. She immediately understood that the attacks would have a huge impact on both the US military and on the entire field of aviation.
She decided to stay in the Air Force — and as a result, she would get her own chance participate in a US war effort by flying C-17s into Iraq and Afghanistan. She was based in Saudia Arabia and United Arab Emirates, and even flew missions out of Diego Garcia, the remote US-British military base on an island in the center of the Indian Ocean (“Between work and going to sleep you got to see some beautiful scenery,” she says).
But as Poulton explained, a C-17 crew’s deployment is never really over — the plane will spend 4 to 6 months abroad, only to “get home an then they start flying again.” The plane, and its crew, remains in a constant state of readiness, no matter where it is, or what the next mission might bring. “You’re always in the mix in a C-17,” says Poulton.
A C-17 Globemaster weighs around 2,000 tons, but it can land on as little as 3,500 feet of dirt runway. In Afghanistan, Poulton would land the massive aircraft on dirt strips to resupply remote forward operating bases. She explained the typical landing procedure: the plane would be completely blacked out, with no external or internal lighting during the approach. The crew, including the pilots, would have to wear night-vision goggles.
On night approaches, the ground and sky would be a void-like black. But on the radios, Poulton would pick up evidence of the surrounding conflict, as she would hear Air Force combat controllers talking to nearby aircraft, along with other surrounding radio chatter within a crowded yet blacked-out airspace.
“There’s so much stimulus, you can hear things going on and you’re trying to synthesise it all so that you can be helpful to whatever’s going on around you, while you’re still trying to execute your mission,” Poulton says. “It’s like having your brain in 4 different places.”
Operating under these conditions requires intense concentration. Poulton found motivation in the idea that her missions were part of a larger whole — a world-spanning network in which troops, equipment, and aircraft sustained operations from the US all the way to the most remote and dangerous corners of Afghanistan. “We know that the mission we’re on is part of a bigger mission,” she says.
The US military is vast and interconnected, and civilian life can feel limited and isolating in contrast. Poulton retired from the military in 2013, and said the key to her transition after two decades in the Air Force was finding a company where she felt she could make a difference — and then finding a specific mission within it.
She ended up in BP’s communications’ department not long after she left the Air Force and when the 2010 Gulf Oil spill was still fresh in the public’s mind. She found a company eager to make things right — and with a social conscience that she says appealed to her after her 20 years of military service. She found that it was receptive to changing its strategy towards recruiting veterans, and promoting the role of veterans within the company.
“It was really important for me to continue feeling like I’m part of something bigger,” she said. At BP, she’s tried to promote the idea that veterans have more private-sector skills than civilians realise — that veterans have leadership, technical, and organizational abilities that are useful outside of a military context. “I want to make sure I’m using the voice and the power and the reach of this company to really elevate the narrative about veterans,” she says.
Poulton isn’t just a veteran, but a pilot as well. Veterans may have skills and experiences that most Americans lack. And pilots in particular have a different view of reality than people who have never taken control of an aircraft, Poulton explains.
“Pilots are thinking about how we fit the overall flow of everything, not just our little piece of the sky or the ground,” she says. “You’re thinking about the whole big picture, all the time.”
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