U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. --
Imagine you’re seven-year-old Houston Cantwell growing up in Fairfax, Virginia.
It’s 1979 and you’re in the second grade at Rockledge Elementary School.
But you’re not paying attention in class. You’re sketching fighter planes on graph paper.
You don’t touch a book, much less read one, during those school years. All those pesky words might damage your eyesight. This mortifies your mother, who happens to be a teacher.
Come hell or high water, you know you will become a fighter pilot.
Years later, you’re commissioned into the Air Force and achieve that goal. You become a command pilot who’s flown combat missions over Afghanistan and Iraq.
And now? You happen to be the vice superintendent of the Air Force Academy.
“An assignment to the Academy was not on the radar,” said the now-Colonel Cantwell during a Nov. 6 interview.
Cantwell caught wind earlier this year of his selection to be the Academy’s vice commander during his assignment as commander of the 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman Air Force Base. He arrived at the school in July, where he assists Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria in directing its military, academic and athletic training, and its character and leadership development programs.
“My family is still completely ‘over the Moon’ about being given an assignment here,” he said, referring to Lisa, his wife of 15 years, their son and two daughters.
“I have to pinch myself about this assignment.”
The Cantwells’ interests include attending Falcon sports events, hiking and travel, he said.
Cantwell said he’s been overwhelmed by the support of the Front Range military community.
“There’s a wealth of retired officers who support us, offer their insight and provide their perspective,” he said. “They have a vested interest in the Academy, and their knowledge and acumen is invaluable.”
And there’s Silveria, who’s been the superintendent since August 2017.
“What a great boss,” Cantwell said. “He’s the real deal. He’s inclusive and positive and he ‘walks the walk.’ I’m so excited to be part of his leadership team.”
Much of Cantwell’s time is spent helping Silveria align the Academy’s organizational units to best achieve the school’s mission, so in many ways he’s an ambassador for the school’s host wing, the 10th Air Base Wing; the Air Education and Training Center’s 306th Flying Training Group; the Commandant of Cadets; the Dean of Faculty; and the Academy’s Prep School.
“Fundamentally, we develop innovative leaders of character with a warrior ethos,” he said. “As the vice commander, I make sure our lines of effort remain aligned while strengthening ties with higher headquarters and the community.”
Cantwell said cadets and Airmen should welcome and appreciate what he calls the “intrinsic value of challenges.” He likens this view to lessons he learned as a combat pilot.
“Combat puts-to-test your judgment like nothing else in the world,” he said. “Combat is dynamic with lives on the line. It really puts to test all of your training and education. Throughout your career, you never know when you’re going to be tested, so take every opportunity to prepare yourself now.”
Cantwell received his commission as a second lieutenant through the University of Virginia’s ROTC program in 1994 and graduated with a bachelor’s in systems engineering. Since then, he’s earned master degrees in organizational management; military operational art and science; airpower arts and science; and national security strategy.
He completed undergraduate pilot training in 1996 and F-16 training in 1997, and later became an instructor pilot and a combat pilot, flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions and conducting precision airstrikes above Afghanistan and Iraq.
Cantwell said helping lead the Academy still keeps him at high altitudes.
“I love actively engaging and developing cadets and young Airmen,” he said. “I try to tell them to take advantage of the opportunities here and think about future challenges.”
Cantwell’s many hobbies tend to keep him “fit to fight.” Along with cycling and the occasional triathlon, he’s a longtime soccer athlete who occupies a midfielder slot on the Colorado Springs Adult Soccer Team’s “Over 35” roster.
Cantwell likes to downplay his skills, but fellow league defender Lt. Col. John Easton says otherwise.
“He’s agile and a very level-headed play maker,” said Easton, also Silveria’s executive officer. “He’s a great addition to the team.”
Cantwell has another reason to appreciate the sport.
“I met Lisa on the field while attending George Washington University,” he said. “We met on the same intramural soccer team.”
Cantwell said he’s especially keen to catch up on the reading he overlooked. He said his avoidance of reading temporarily put him behind the curve.
“Here I was at age 31, working on my first master’s degree at George Washington University in a room full of 49 captains,” he said. “I felt like the dumbest person in the room. My mom was right -- I’d never developed my intellectual curiosity. From that point on, I knew if I wanted to be relevant in the Air Force I’d have to read books. I tell our cadets -- these young soon-to-be officers -- to read a book now and then.”
Cantwell’s previous military assignments include five overseas tours of duty which kept him outside the U.S. for 11 years. This experience helped him understand the value of international partnerships, he said.
“Those international partnerships really enhance our capabilities as an Air Force,” he said. “You can’t go wrong when you build relationships. Our interoperability, legitimacy, and war-fighting capabilities are all increased.”
Adding to this, Cantwell said, is the time he spent as a child in Paia, Hawaii, on the island of Maui, visiting his mother’s relatives who had moved there from Japan.
“Travel causes you to adjust your perspective, especially international travel,” he said. “I remember thinking it really gives you an idea of people’s views on materialism and what you need or don’t need.”
Cantwell said serving as the Academy’s vice commander is challenging but rewarding. When talking with today’s generation of cadets, he tries to bridge the gap between the 20th century warfare and today’s IT-centered generation.
“The changes in war-fighting and how we conduct lethality in just the last few generations have been incredible,” he said. “Take my career: I flew F-16s in combat and then a year later, I’m doing the same mission, flying MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft from 10,000 miles away while living in Las Vegas,” referring to his time as the commander of the 732nd Operations Group at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, while piloting RPAs. “That’s quite a transformation. I’m excited to explain to cadets how the Air Force is maturing and how we can present 21st Century air-power from ‘our home.’”