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From Combat Zones to Classroom
Tony Lawson Retires Air Force Wings for Business Career

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By Joanna Corman

Tony Lawson piloted drones over a tsunami-devastated Japan and flew refueling planes during wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In July, he retired his nine-year tour with the U.S. Air Force for another mission: a UC Davis MBA.

Lawson has experienced some culture shock as a first-year Full-Time MBA student, but welcomes the change. He marvels at the School’s cultural diversity and his fellow students’ varied life experiences compared to the Air Force’s homogeneity.

“It’s a perfect transition because the camaraderie and skills you learn in the military, I think directly translate to school,” he says. “Everybody is really tight-knit already and we’re all working together for common goals.”

Growing up in an Air Force family, Lawson says the excitement of flying lured him into the service after graduating from West Virginia University. He relished the fellowship among his crew, the travel and meeting new people. After his last assignment at Beale Air Force Base, Lawson planted roots in Northern California with his wife and two children.

Lawson separated from the military well-equipped with proven leadership and management abilities. At UC Davis, he plans to focus on technical management and finance.

His short-term, post-MBA goal is to join a company such as IBM selling products to businesses or consumers, drawing on his management and interpersonal strengths. Someday he’d like to enter state or national politics.

Lawson started his Air Force career as a KC-10 aircraft commander. Deployed to the Middle East, he often flew missions into combat zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. He likened a KC-10 to “a flying gas station.” While he piloted the plane, a crew member extends a fuel-carrying tube that would attach to a fighter jet flying just 40 feet below.

“I was 24, 25 and at the time was upgraded to aircraft commander, so I’m in charge of the whole crew, the whole plane, the mission. I’m a mid-20s guy with this $88 million plane flying around the world. It was cool and scary at the same time.”

In 2008 he was assigned to Beale, where he piloted Global Hawk drones, flying high-altitude reconnaissance missions for combat and humanitarian purposes. When a tsunami devastated Japan last March, Lawson remotely controlled drones that photographed the wreckage to help the Japanese government assess the most damaged areas. It was the first time such a drone had been used in a humanitarian mission, he says.

The Air Force often assigns its pilots office jobs in addition to their flying duties and one of those led to a notable accomplishment for Lawson. Air Force officers can earn medals, which can count toward a promotion. After a colleague missed a promotion because his medal application was still winding through the paper-based system, Lawson decided to overhaul it. It would typically take six months for applications to travel through some half-dozen offices for approval.

“I took over the shop and saw how inefficient it was,” he says. “I swapped everything over to an electronic system and started doing it via e-mail and … cut the time in half.”

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