Brian McNaughton’s Journey from The Army to Airline Cockpit

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A Chilean officer greets Col. Brian McNaughton (right), the U.S. Army South deputy commander for operations, upon entering the Edificio Ejercito Bicentenario (Chilean army headquarters) for the first day of the army-to-army staff talks between the U.S. and Chilean Nov. 5 in Santiago, Chile. The staff talks are scheduled to take place Nov. 5-7 and will serve as a bilateral forum for strategic-level discussion between respective armies. The engagements enhance army-to-army contacts and mutual understanding, providing the partner nation armies with insights concerning specific U.S. Army programs, areas of mutual interest, and assisting partner nation armies in areas of modernization or reform. (U.S. Army photo by Eric R. Lucero, U.S. Army South Public Affairs)

Congratulations to Brian McNaughton – Game Changer – for his new job as an airline pilot. Not the typical Game Changer job, right?

There’s a deliberate process to Brian’s thinking, “we learned it from Day 1 at West Point: be technically and tactically proficient.” Flying has always been a passion and Brian wants to apply his vast executive and international experience to the aviation industry. “But first, I’m going to see it and do it from the bottom,” he says. There are multitudes of aviation executives with no flying experience. “Yes, aviation is a business but if the most senior executives have never flown the line I think that leaves a significant gap in truly understanding aircrew and ground crew issues to inform business decisions,” Brian explains.

This current road for Brian is more than 33 years in the making. Entering West Point in 1984 and graduating as a 2LT in the Aviation branch in 1988, Brian went on to serve over 29 years in the Army retiring as a Colonel. The early years were all about flying. First, in Korea as an Aeroscout Platoon Leader then teaching those same skills back at the home of Army aviation, Ft. Rucker, AL, now dubbed the Army’s Aviation Center of Excellence. Brian then went on to serve four years, 1993-1996, in the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR). “This unit was not well-known outside DoD until Blackhawk Down happened. It was not a good time for the unit.” Brian points out he was not in Somalia during the mission but served as an operational MH-6J “Little Bird” pilot for his last two years as a Nightstalker. “There are some guys who spend their whole careers in the 160th.  They are, quite simply, the best helicopter pilots on the planet.” It could be easy to develop a bloated ego in such a setting but one phrase, by a key leader, will stick in Brian’s mind for the rest of his life. “He was one of the top three leaders of the Regiment and he’s speaking to a bunch of us younger guys during a professional development session and he says, ‘you aren’t the best pilots because you’re better than everyone else. You are the best because you are better funded, better trained and better equipped. Remember that the next time you think about telling someone how great you are.’ I thought this is the exact leadership attitude I want.”

In 1997, Brian’s career took an interesting turn away from aviation, when he was selected to become a Foreign Area Officer (FAO). The Army sent him to the Defense Language Institute to learn Portuguese then to Vanderbilt University for a Master’s degree. He completed the Brazilian Army’s Command and Staff College in Rio de Janeiro then started, what would last the next 17 years, service as a FAO. He served as an Attaché back in Brazil, as a combat advisor in Iraq, on HQ staffs in Miami, FL and Ft. Sam Houston, TX and as the Chief of the Office of Defense Coordination in the US Embassy in Mexico City. In this last job, Brian was responsible for all security cooperation activities between the US and Mexican military forces and for Foreign Military Sales. Brian set the bar very high indeed.  “Our military relationship with Mexico is long, complex and quite frankly marked by a certain aloofness on the part of the Mexicans,” he explains. “The Mexican military forces are extremely capable and well-led and don’t need the US to ‘help them out.’” But through daily interaction, building a relationship based on trust and respect, Brian and his office were able to meet very significant Mexican military materiel needs. “In 2014, we inked three contracts totalling over $1.05B,” Brian said. “We were in the right place at the right time. They had modernization goals and needs and the US FMS system was able to produce. I’m proud to have led the office at that important time.”

There is a GCA connection in Brian’s story. While serving at the HQ for US Southern Command in Miami, he was noticed in 2002 by the new commander, four-star General Tom Hill. General Hill asked Brian to be his Aide-de-Camp for a year, and when that was up, for a second year. “The relationship between a General and his Aide is unique,” Brian explains, “we spend more time with each other than we do with our wives. The chemistry either works or it doesn’t; with us it worked well. General Hill is a great man, officer and leader.  It wasn’t so much a job but rather a formative experience for me.” Tom feels the same way. “Brian was my Aide, yes, but having him close to me let me draw on his FAO expertise during our extensive travels in Latin America.” Brian speaks Portuguese and Spanish and often was the only one next to General Hill during his meetings with Presidents, Ministers of Defense and Army Commanders. When asked about Brian’s future in the aviation industry Hill said, “Brian will rise to the top in whatever he chooses to do, because he is first and foremost an exceptional human being.” When General Hill came to GCA, he knew immediately that he would recommend Brian for membership.

Brian and his wife, Shellye, have been married for over 27 years. They had four children and adopted four more. Nowadays Brian quips, “we are down to four left in the house and it’s not as hectic as it used to be but Shellye and I still have to be purposeful to schedule time together.” The sheer amount of scheduling that needs to be done is amazing. He recently had four days off between flying trips and the couple spent two evenings with Brian’s company mate from West Point, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards. “I get home from a trip on Wednesday night. Thursday we drive to Baton Rouge as John Bel is throwing an Army tailgate party that night at the Governor’s mansion. Friday we spend walking around New Orleans and have dinner with John Bel and some close classmates at a private home downtown. Saturday we watch Army lose a heartbreaker to Tulane in the last 24 seconds, and Sunday we’re back in San Antonio. Monday, I’m off flying again.” They’re making it work!

Are there any big issues in the aviation industry right now?  “Yes, ATC privatization.”  He’s speaking of the push to privatize the Air Traffic Control system in the US.  All the major airlines are pushing this and so is the President.  “The President is a businessman so privatization sounds good to him, but he is dead wrong on this issue.  The real problem is not air congestion; it’s lack of concrete.  You could have the most efficient air routing system in the world but until we pour several hundred square miles of new concrete the congestion problem will continue to be where it is now – on the ground.  The economic engine of the major carriers is big but it pales in comparison to impact and reach of general and corporate aviation.  The politicians would never vote for ATC privatization if they realized the economic impact corporate and general aviation has in every county of every state.  That’s a lot of voters.  Don’t believe me?  Just check out what Sully is saying about this subject.”

Are there airports that are models for development? “Yes, just look at Atlanta, Denver and Dallas. You want to clear up over half the congestion on the Eastern seaboard? Carve out about 50 square miles in the middle of New York, build a high-speed rail in the City and commercially develop LaGuardia, JFK and Newark.  Granted there would have to be some revenue compensation for New Jersey. This is the kind of big thinking that needs to be done in the aviation industry, not who is going to schedule routes and file flight plans.”

Are you looking to stay on the passenger carrier side? “Maybe. We’ll let the next couple of years play out. We love San Antonio but there’s no airline base or major operations there. What is there is a large and growing fractional, both on-demand and scheduled, presence as well as a sizable corporate footprint. For instance, Valero’s aviation department is one of the most respected in the country and it’s based right at the San Antonio airport. That has great appeal.”

Brian McNaughton. Game Changer.

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