When Col. Carol Timmons was promoted in 2011 to brigadier general, she also became the first female general officer in the history of the Delaware National Guard.
Timmons is director of the Guard's joint staff and a resident of Rehoboth Beach. She has 34 years of military service, is a command pilot, has been deployed to multiple combat zones and has commanded U.S. forces overseas, according to the Guard. Timmons joined the Guard in 1977 after graduating from William Penn High School in New Castle.
Carol Anne Timmons is the perfect model for young women who want a dream fulfilled. Since childhood, she wanted to fly jets. Following graduation from New Castle's William Penn High in 1976, she enlisted in the Delaware Air National Guard (DANG). But the military wasn't sure women should fly in combat, so she switched to the Delaware Army National Guard to fly helicopters.
Meanwhile, she earned a B.A. in aviation management at Wilmington College. Determined to fly jets, Lt. Timmons transferred to the Air Force Reserve where she could fly non-combat missions on C-141 transports. During "Desert Storm" (1990-1991) then-Capt. Timmons flew in combat support operations in and out of Southwest Asia.
When the Air Force allowed women to fly combat, Timmons returned to DANG and began flying C- 130s. The unit's first female pilot, she flew in support of Bosnia, Kosovo and other global operations. In 2003 her unit was activated for "Operation Iraqi Freedom." She flew as an aircraft commander, accumulating more than 400 hours of combat time, including service as a squadron commander responsible for 14 C-130s, 28 crews and some 200 ground personnel.
New Commander of Air Guard Ops… In November 2005, after 32 months of activation, Lt. Col. Timmons returned to her civilian job as a first officer flying jets for United Airlines. In April this year, she was promoted to full colonel and appointed commander of DANG's 166th operations group.
During 30 years in the military, Timmons hurdled every gender-based obstacle confronted. "The successful service of female aircrew members has disproved the myth that women could not perform in the combat mission arena," she says. The New Castle native, now a Rehoboth Beach resident, has flown 5,000 military hours and 9,000 civilian hours.
Delaware Air National Guard piloting a historic course
The reason? Tightened security since Osama bin Laden's death.
It's not the first time bin Laden impacted Timmons' life. On 9/11, Timmons was co-pilot of a United Airlines plane that many said was to be the fifth seized by hijackers.
Two years later, in 2003, Timmons led a Delaware Air National Guard deployment to Saudi Arabia and flew combat missions in the Iraq War, as America opened a decade-long attempt to settle the score for 9/11.
In 2008, Timmons earned a Bronze Star while commanding a combat deployment to Afghanistan. Now, the 53-year-old who lives just north of Rehoboth Beach will be in charge of Guard troops from Delaware who could be called to fight Islamic terrorists across the globe.
At Timmons' promotion ceremony Saturday, as much time was spent talking about her gender as her decorated career. She's OK with that.
"It's not what I lead with, and it's not why I'm here today," Timmons said. "But it is important. Those barriers were there and they took decades to be removed. Isn't it great that there are 20-year-old women here who don't know any better?"
"She's a trendsetter, a role model and certainly a champion of change," Vavala said. "Many more will follow Carol in the name of equality, fairness and opportunity in our institution. We have all won, and, more importantly, we have made a statement about the future of the Delaware Air National Guard."
In a vast hangar with a huge American flag as a backdrop, Timmons had her "pinning on" ceremony, during which her colonel's eagles were removed and her general's stars were put on. She briefly held the one-star general's flag that was unveiled.
Timmons did her best to deflect the praise directed at her during the one-hour event.
"The word 'first' has been thrown around quite a bit today," she said. " 'First' to me means just timing and tenacity."
Not an obvious choice Even though her dad was a sailor, Timmons knew she wanted to be a pilot since she was a little girl in New Castle County. "If you talk to my mom, she'll tell you that I told her I wanted to be a pilot when I was 5," Timmons said. "Nobody knew where it came from."
It was that desire to fly -- and her refusal to accept gender barriers -- that drove her decorated military career. Timmons took an unusually long and complicated path to her general's star, starting out with a single enlisted airman's stripe in the Delaware Air National Guard in early 1977 after graduating from William Penn High School in New Castle the previous year.
Her crossover from enlisted to commissioned officer ranks alone would have made her military years notable.
Military flying, Timmons acknowledged, "was not a career that was obvious for women," in the 1970s, "so I kind of got misdirected" into criminal justice training at Delaware Technical & Community College, another nontraditional avenue for women at the time.
But classmates at William Penn saw few signs of Timmons' warrior side.
Phil Simpkins of New Castle, a former attorney who graduated with Timmons, recalled her as "one of the quiet types," playing on the softball team throughout high school and participating in Leader Corps activities. Her "Senior Will" entry in the Class of '76 yearbook read simply: "I, Carol Timmons, leave my shyness and quietness to Brenda B. and Betsy K."
At Delaware Tech, a classmate who already was in the Guard suggested that part-time military work would be fun and rewarding. After an eye-opening ride on the flight deck of a C-130 during her first deployment as a security force member, Timmons was hooked on the idea of piloting.
"My parents had a 'deer in the headlights' kind of look," recalled Timmons, who now lives in a quiet section of the Breakwater Estates community. "They were very supportive and said, 'OK, if this is what you want to do, if you want to fly ... " The Guard wasn't so sure.
'Follow the dream' The military of the time barred women from flying C-130s because of the big plane's combat role. So Timmons jumped from Delaware's Air Guard to the Army National Guard, where she won an officer's commission in 1980 and training that allowed her to begin flying the venerable and ubiquitous UH-1 "Huey" helicopter in 1981.
Three years later, though, the Army moved to pull women out of their Hueys because of the combat restriction. Timmons launched herself into the Air Force Reserve and trained to pilot C-141 jet transports, flying out of McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.
By 1990, Timmons was flying C-141 missions in support of Operation Desert Storm and, later, Desert Shield. A few months later, she would circle back to the Delaware Air Guard, where she finally got a seat at the controls of the C-130.
"I tell people: 'If you have a dream, do what you have to do to follow the dream,' " Timmons said. "If someone tells you, 'No,' then look for another road. How many doors were shut in my face by people saying, 'No, you can't fly because you're a female.' "
Although military flight proved to be personally rewarding, Timmons said, part-time, reserve-duty pay limits were a concern. She began flying on her civilian time for Pan Am in the mid-1980s, before its bankruptcy, then joined United Airlines in the early 1990s after rejoining the Delaware Air National Guard and learning to fly the C-130.
In recent years, Timmons has moved into higher-ranking roles, with less time to fly and more time to lead and manage. Her latest duty is as director of joint staff officers, an Army and Air Force coordination job that she described as "the best job."
Her achievements got noticed over the years, earning her a place in the Delaware Women's Hall of Fame in 2004 and induction into the Delaware Aviation Hall of Fame in 2007. Over the years, she logged 5,000 hours in the air in various military aircraft -- including 400 hours while carrying out more than than 100 combat flying missions -- and 8,000 hours at the controls of commercial passenger aircraft.
"I miss flying and I miss the operations side of the house, but eventually you promote yourself out of that and you have to move on and let the youngsters take over."
Gov. Jack Markell told the audience at Timmons' promotion ceremony that she was a role model for all girls and young women in Delaware.
"Another glass ceiling has shattered," Markell said.
9/11 experience Timmons recounted her 9/11 experience last week.
Early that morning, Timmons was flying as first officer for United Airlines Flight 23 out of John F. Kennedy Airport, after enjoying the morning view on the drive over the narrows of New York Bay. She was helping to taxi the wide-bodied Boeing 767 jet bound for Los Angeles when the airport was abruptly shut down.
Air traffic controllers and United Airlines internal messages spoke of hijackings, imminent threats. While the government never has made a full public report, aviation expert Lynn Spencer dedicated several pages to Flight 23 in her book, "Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama That Unfolded in the Skies Over America on 9/11."
After a United dispatcher ordered crews, "Do not open cockpit doors, secure the cockpit," pilot Tom Mannello "was shocked, instinctively reaching down to grab the crash ax while handing the heavy fire extinguisher to Timmons. Timmons jumped out of her seat and started barricading the cockpit door with their suitcases," Spencer wrote.
Timmons confirmed the account last week, recalling that "I just went into action. I was up out of the seat, doing stuff, while the captain was holding down the fort."
Moments later, Spencer said, attendants on Flight 23 relayed from the other side of the barricade that they were concerned about "four young Arab men sitting in first class."
The New York Times would later report that the FBI investigated a report that the four men on Flight 23 became "agitated" when the trip was canceled, "urgently consulted" with one another and refused orders from flight attendants, then "bolted" from the plane when it returned to the terminal. Al-Qaida documents and box cutters were found later in their unclaimed baggage, Spencer wrote.
Timmons confirmed being questioned about the incident by the FBI, one of what Spencer described as "half a dozen" federal questionings of the Flight 23 crew. The findings, Timmons said, were never shared, although Mannello was quoted as concluding that the fuel-laden, transcontinental Flight 23 "would have been next" had the airport shutdown order been delayed.
"The FBI asks questions," Timmons said. "They don't tell you things."
Wartime duty In 2003, Timmons led a Delaware Air National Guard deployment to Saudi Arabia and a combat role in the Iraq War.
"We landed in the middle of nowhere in Saudi Arabia," Timmons recalled. "The people who landed in front of me built my tent, I built other people's tent. We built a camp out of nothing. Then the war started; we started flying low-level missions into Iraq. Here I am, finally, after decades of being told that I'm not going to fly combat, sitting in the left seat of a plane on a combat mission." Timmons expressed sadness and regret at the losses of American and Iraqi lives during the fighting but described her wartime duty as "an awesome, unbelievable experience."
Five years later, while commanding a combat deployment to Afghanistan, Timmons earned a Bronze Star for directing 700 troops through months of close air support, air drops, search and rescue and medical evacuations across that war-torn country, and for her work to improve air drop practices in the region. The 6,700 missions carried out under her command in 2008, the award noted, handled millions of pounds of cargo and munitions, thousands of passengers and hundreds of medical patients.
Remembering roots Nearly 500 people attended Timmons' promotion. During her remarks, she stayed true to her reputation as a down-to-earth person and an officer who never forgot her roots as an enlistee. When thanking the retired Guard members for attending, she said, "Make sure you give me a hug before you leave, OK?"
She also made sure that the new Guard members who are still in training felt like the most important people in the room. About 20 of them, wearing T-shirts and standing along the rear wall, far from the ceremony's stage, were given a standing ovation by the crowd at Timmons' direction.
Five of the new members -- about 25 percent -- were young women.
After the ceremony, at least half the crowd stood in line to greet Timmons. She knew more names than not and offered back-slapping hugs and a personal comment about their connection to her to nearly everyone.
It was all signature Timmons, Vavala said.
"That's what Carol is all about," he said. "She never forgot where she came from once she became an officer. That's a great quality in a leader."