The Air Force general directing the airstrikes over Libya has flown aerial tankers into battle, commanded MacDill Air Force Base's 6th Air Mobility Wing, overseen the pilots of Air Force One — and is now the first woman to lead a combat air campaign.
Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward, 51, was in charge of the 17th Air Force, a unit at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, that supports humanitarian and peacekeeping missions in Africa, when she was ordered to set up the United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone over Libya.
In the 11 days since, U.S. and coalition aircraft have flown more than 1,400 sorties. They have bombed Moammar Gadhafi's air defenses and helped push his army back from the edge of the rebel stronghold in Benghazi in eastern Libya. Only one allied plane, an F-15E, was lost — to equipment failure. Both fliers in the jet ejected and were rescued.
That the execution of the mission looks smooth is no surprise, said Michael Dunn, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who is president and chief executive officer of the Air Force Association, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that promotes air power and looks after the interests of Air Force veterans.
"Look at her background," he said, noting how Woodward has flown in wartime and commanded two Air Force wings and an operations group. "She's battle-tested."
Woodward became the first woman ever to command MacDill's 6th Air Mobility Wing when she took the reins in February 2005. She oversaw operations at one of the nation's most-important bases, home to the two major commands overseeing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan — U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command.
She frequently flew MacDill's signature aircraft: the KC-135 air refueling tanker , an aircraft that dates to the Eisenhower administration.
Woodward told the St. Petersburg Times in a 2005 interview that she had a soft-spot for the old tankers. "My heart smiles every time I look at a KC-135, sort of like people looking at a 1957 Chevy."
Woodward's husband, Dan Woodward, himself an Air Force colonel at the time, did not live with his wife at MacDill because he had a staff job at the Pentagon. When she could, Woodward flew to Washington to visit him.
A 1982 graduate of Arizona State University, she earned advanced degrees at the National War College in Washington and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.
When she entered the Air Force in 1983, women were banned from flying in combat. After earning her pilot's wings, she became an instructor on the T-38, a plane used to train future F-15 and F-16 fighter pilots. Her husband, who retired two years ago as an Air Force brigadier general, also served as a T-38 instructor.
Woodward soon moved to the KC-135 tanker, refueling warplanes in flight during the 1989 invasion of Panama and the 1999 campaign against Serbian forces in Kosovo. She commanded refueling missions for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and has accumulated nearly 4,000 hours of flight time.
"Maggie was always very proud to be a tanker person" since that allowed her to fly in combat, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. William Welser III said. He was Woodward's commander when she was selected for the MacDill assignment.
After MacDill, Woodward went on to command the 89th Airlift Wing, which ferries top government officials around the globe and includes Air Force One.
Times staff writer William R. Levesque contributed to this report.