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From Star Wars to Showcase Wing: Meet Col. J. Scot Heathman

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Miranda Simpson
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

Ever since watching “Star Wars” at the age of 3, Col. J. Scot Heathman, who assumed command of the 375th Air Mobility Wing on June 25, said he had always wanted to fly.

Even at that young age, he sat mesmerized by the epic struggle between the Rebellion and the Galactic Empire, the fight between good and evil, the antics of Han Solo, the power of the Jedi warriors, and all the while loving the music and dramatic scenery. As a movie lover, Hollywood certainly provided all the inspiration he needed to pursue his dream, but there was always a stronger sense of service running through his veins.

“Epic movies like Star Wars always sparked a feeling of purpose and to this day, I’m a huge movie lover of stories that defy the odds, stories of struggle and those that overcome hurdles in order to achieve success -- in fact my whole family is into movies like that. Great movies can provide the spark necessary to dream big,” said Heathman

With parents who lived a modest lifestyle as farmers growing up in and around Rochester, Minnesota, Heathman said they just didn’t have a lot of money to pay for flying lessons growing up, and that’s one reason why he looked to the Air Force as a way to accomplish his dream.

His parents were supportive of his decision because he said he was “always adventurous and daring throughout his childhood,” and they thought it would be a “good career for him to go into.” So Heathman earned a ROTC scholarship and attended the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, graduating with a degree in Civil Engineering in 1997.

Attending school in Chicago was exciting for him, he said, because it made him feel independent, and he loved the big city.

During his junior year, he needed to pass a flight physical to become a pilot, which proved to be a challenge that would test his resolve and resiliency.

While Heathman often jokes about short stature it was no laughing matter when the flight doc initially told him he failed his flight physical.  He didn’t know why until he found out that he did not meet the sitting height requirement.

But, after some investigation into the matter, he discovered that they were using old data from his high school days when he first applied for an ROTC scholarship, and he asked to be re-measured. He had grown 4 inches in college and knew he’d make it this time. He made the final cut by half an inch. 

“It was pretty awesome to work so hard for that goal and then actually achieve it, and I knew I would cherish it once I had it,” he said.

That persistence set the stage for what would follow because he wasn’t scheduled to go into pilot training right away. He actually waited a year for training to start. During that time he served as an executive officer for the 394th Combat Training Squadron, a B-2 squadron, at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.

After graduating pilot training at Laughlin AFB in 1999 (Class 99-09), he was assigned to Fairchild AFB, Washington, flying the KC-135R air refueling aircraft. He would go on to fly the C-17A at Charleston, rounding out his operational mobility assignments. Today, at age 44, he is a command pilot with over 2,650 flying hours in four different aircraft including the KC-135R/T and C-17A.  His career has taken him to Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma, Washington, South Carolina, Kansas, the Pentagon (The Joint Staff, J-5), a Squadron Command tour in New Hampshire, a stint at Air Mobility Command headquarters, Rhode Island, and back to Washington before being assigned here as the installation commander.

In addition he’s deployed more than 5 times to places such as Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia,   Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, and Diego Garcia. He’s amassed over 500 combat and combat support flight hours flying combat missions in Operations NORTHERN WATCH, SOUTHERN WATCH, ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM…to include 100s of hours of alert in support of Operation NOBLE EAGLE at Fairchild AFB and several JCS Alert Missions at Charleston AFB. As a prior instructor pilot in both tanker and airlift aircraft, he’s experienced quite a bit in his mobility career and that’s what always excited him about the missions he flew. “There’s never a dull day and never a day like the last one,” remarked Col Heathman. Oh, and he’s even been NASA’s go-to pilot to move Martian spacecraft for launch at Cape Canaveral, moving the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Phoenix Mars Lander.

Heathman proved early in his career he could make it far in the United States Air Force, and was given many leadership opportunities by showcasing the right attitude for the job and his ability to think outside the box.  

For example, as a first lieutenant, Heathman was tasked with leading an entire unit with the physically demanding task of filling hundreds of sandbags for an upcoming exercise—something that can be very mundane and draining.

Yet, he found ways to make it fun for the unit. There was a competition to see who could fill the most bags in 60 seconds, there was a DJ while they worked and even a picnic afterward. His commander gave him a task and he found a way to get it done faster than any other unit on base with a smile on their faces. That set the tone for how he would continue to lead his Airmen…getting after the task but sometimes looking for the unconventional approach to grow and connect while doing it. Later in life he would be recognized as one of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s Team Excellence award winners for his work on the development of the C-17 Expeditionary Airlift Squadron Concept, a concept that was employed across the mobility enterprise for over 10 years. The main focus of this effort was delivering more combat power and logistics to the warfighter while stabilizing the crew force to make life better for the C-17 community.

“I’ve always been a ‘people first’ leader. Develop the people first, empower them and let them shine. Leadership is important to help guide the way, but if you can get after the goal through some quality training while having fun…well….those are times when I see our Air Force at its very best.”

Col Heathman is the type of person who works hard, is always learning, but also recognizes that it’s important to enjoy a life outside of the military by spending time with friends and family. 

It was when he took some time off to attend a wedding in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, in August of 2000, that he first met his future wife, Mary, a Boston native. Mary was also on vacation in the area with her girlfriends. As luck would have it, they found each other in a casino.

“She was very approachable and beautiful, obviously,” Heathman said, gesturing to his wife of nearly 18 years. “We exchanged numbers and eventually started a long distance relationship.”

Heathman said they only saw each other 20 days during the first year of their relationship, but they talked on the phone quite a bit. Long before the days FaceTime and Text Messaging became common tools for communicating.

Mary said, “One of the big things that drew me to him initially was that he had ‘drive and ambition’.  After we got to know each other more, I was kind of in awe of how much he liked to learn, and how he was always trying to make himself and others better.”

He said he admires how much she’s adopted the Air Force life despite its many challenges. He “loves the way she connects with people and gets involved to support others…she’s a true servant-leader!”

As they were planning for their wedding in 2001, 9/11 happened.  He knew he’d be deploying, so they cancelled their original wedding plans for later in the year. On very short notice, she flew to Washington State where they were married by a local judge in Sep 2001. To this day they have no regrets and wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Three years later their son, Joshua, was born in Charleston, SC.  Heathman has been very open about the fact that his son, now 14, has Autism and a few other challenges, but said they are grateful for the support they receive from their family, friends and the Air Force with programs such as the Exceptional Family Member Program and Respite Care. “Having a family member with Special Needs is not easy. It requires a lot of resilience, patience, advocacy and prayers. We’ve always hoped that our journey with Josh has inspired others to come forward. We want to ensure others are receiving the support they need for their family members.” To this day, Heathman and his wife remain strong advocates across the Air Force for improving Special Needs programs for military families. In addition, he said he’s thankful for the warm welcome his entire family received at Scott, especially those who befriended his son. “Airmen and their families should never feel alone. If they do, we’ve done something wrong in our service and support towards one another.”

 Mary said one of her goals is to continue working with the Key Spouse program, advocate for spousal employment and special needs families while her husband commands the Showcase Wing.

“We are both very outgoing and enjoy networking, which really helped us with programs like the Key Spouse initiative. Programs like these help not only commander, but also their Airmen and families during their most challenging times. It’s about connecting folks with resources to meet their needs. They help build and bridge connections, which are so important, especially when military members are away from their family or during tough times.”

Those connections can be like a second family for some in the military and give people a sense of security.

“We’ve both adopted this massive 375th and Team Scott family,” she added. “You are all a big part of our lives now.”

Heathman said as he continues with his immersions into the squadrons, he wants his Airmen to understand a bit of his leadership philosophy which he shared in a series of recent commander’s calls.

“It’s the ABC’s of me and what I believe: Attitude is everything; Be present, be bold and be innovative; and Care, connect, communicate and collaborate,” he said, “I also dare you to dream big, and work on exceeding everyone’s expectations, including, and most importantly, your own.”

In addition, he laid out a formula for where he wants to focus going forward which is “A x B x C3 = Success.” Expanding upon this he’s focused on Airmen Development, Being Battle Ready and Caring for Families, Community Partnerships and Customer Service. “If any of those variables are zero, the entire equation equates to nothing. This is what I intend to focus on during my time at Scott. And I can’t wait to get started!”