Chilton family continues tradition of service

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
One of the Air Force Academy's senior officers will mark her 30th year of service to the Air Force next month, while her daughter prepares to become a fourth-generation Airman.

Brig. Gen. Cathy Chilton is the mobilization assistant to Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, the daughter of an Airman and the granddaughter of an Army Air Corps Soldier. Cadet 1st Class Madison Chilton is a senior cadet assigned to Cadet Squadron 05 here.


Cathy Chilton's trek into the Air Force began while she attended East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. An Air Force recruiter approached her with an offer of an ROTC scholarship. Cathy, an out-of-state student majoring in math and physics, accepted.

"I was taking an ROTC class in military history even though I wasn't in ROTC at the time," she said. "It was great because the job climate in 1981 was about the same as it is today, and it was a guaranteed job."

She stayed on active duty for eight years, separating in May 1988 to marry now-retired Gen. Kevin Chilton, who was a major and astronaut candidate at the time. A year and a half later, she put the uniform back on as a reservist.

"I missed the Air Force when I got out," she said. "Within six months of getting out, I needed to go back in. I missed Air Force people. It's why Kevin decided to come back into the Air Force after being an astronaut."

There were no military positions at NASA at the time, so Cathy ended up working as an aeronautical engineer for the San Antonio Air Logistics Center at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas. She stayed at Kelly AFB until July of 1998, when she took a job as analytical test manager for the Space Warfare Center, now the Space Innovation and Development Center, at Schriever AFB, Colo.

Her Air Force Reserve career took her in different directions from her husband starting in 1999. While Kevin took command of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale AFB, Calif., Cathy stayed at Schriever as operations officer for the 17th Test Squadron.

Kevin, a 1976 Academy graduate, spent a tour at Barksdale AFB, La., as 8th Air Force commander and at Offutt AFB, Neb., as commander of U.S. Strategic Command -- while Cathy's career carried her to Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, as the MA to the director of capabilities integration and later as MA to the commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory.


The moves made for constant upheaval in Madison's life: The younger Chilton attended a different high school each year. So Madison surprised both Kevin and Cathy when she announced her decision to apply for the Academy.

"Moving is tough for any kid," Cathy said. "And then she decided to go into the Air Force. I still can't believe it after we did all that to her."

Cathy credits Brig. Gen. Dana Born, the Academy's dean of the faculty, with coaxing Madison to join the Long Blue Line. The Chilton family encountered Born at an Air Force football game, and the dean asked Madison about her college plans.

"I mentioned about five schools," Madison said. "And she asked me, 'Why isn't my school on your list?' I told her I thought it was too late to apply, but she told me to apply anyway because it would be a good learning experience.

"Later, I found out that's how they get kids to apply," she added, smiling.

Madison joined 293 other women at the Academy on inprocessing day June 26, 2009. Women made up 21.48 percent of the Class of 2012, the highest percentage at that time to enter the Academy since women were first accepted in 1976.

"I wouldn't be where I am today without the Air Force Academy," Madison said. "It's given me more than I ever expected it to: the ways I've been able to grow as a person, the leadership opportunities ... knowing someone trusts you enough to put you in charge of something like Combat Survival Training, where I had a cadre of 20 and 203 students and was told, 'Get them trained.' I'm thankful the Air Force Academy would trust me to do something like that."


Kevin retired Dec. 1. Cathy found out shortly thereafter that her career path would bring the family back to Colorado Springs to join their daughter.

"Just before Christmas, I got a call from Air Force Reserve Chief (Gen.) Charles Stenner, who said he'd like to put my name in for mobilization assistant at the Academy," Cathy said. "I told him I'm not an Academy graduate, but he said that wasn't one of the requirements for the position."

Cathy talked to Madison about the possibility of working at the Academy.

"She told me, 'Mom, my dad is a four-star general. I don't think you being here is going to be a problem," Cathy said.

Just after the holidays, Gould's executive officer called Cathy to schedule an interview.

"We were living in a temporary living facility at the time," she said. Nonetheless, "he (Gould) interviewed me, hired me on the spot and put me to work on the spot."

Mother and daughter rarely see each other apart from weekends, Cathy said. But Madison has learned a lot about her parents while she's been here.

"Everyone I've talked to at the Academy who's worked for my parents has said, 'I love working for them,'" Madison said. "I didn't know why when I was younger, but now I know it's because they take care of their people. Both of them put so much time and effort into just knowing their people, getting to know what's important to them and helping them achieve their goals."


What does life hold in store for the Chiltons? Cathy said she hopes to stay here awhile. Even though her posting here is the first assignment she's had outside the acquisition, testing and engineering career fields, it's her favorite assignment to date.

"This is really motivating," she said. "I'm excited for the future of the Air Force and the country every time I look at these cadets. It's inspiring; it gives you some hope."

She added that the people she works with also make the job enjoyable.

"The senior staff and the mission partners are all just a great group of leaders," she said. "All of them love this place and what they're doing."

Madison, on the other hand, is just about ready to start her Air Force career. She will graduate in May and said she wants to enter aircraft maintenance, a career option recommended to her by her aunt, Air Force Materiel Command Vice Commander Lt. Gen. Terry Gabreski.

"(Gabreski) said most of her growth came while she was a maintenance officer," Madison said. "I want to get that experience."

Madison said she fell in love with the career field after going to MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., during her Operation Air Force summer program.

"Maintenance is one of those jobs where, straight from (technical training), you're put in charge of a hundred people and told, 'These are your people, this is your equipment, and this is your mission; do it now,'" she said. "It forces you to learn very fast and grow very fast as a person. That's worked great for me at the Air Force Academy, and I figure it will work well for me in the Air Force, too."