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Lester Prairie native Cathy Bergdahl spent her career flying high
June 28, 2010

By Ivan Raconteur
Staff Writer

LESTER PRAIRIE, MN – There is nothing complicated about filling a fuel tank, unless, of course, that transfer happens to take place between two aircraft that are traveling at speeds up to 335 knots (about 370 mph).

This kind of precise aerial maneuvering is just one of the assignments that Lester Prairie native Lieutenant Colonel Cathy Bergdahl carried out during her 25 years in the US Air Force.

Bergdahl is the daughter of Joe and Janice Kieser of rural Lester Prairie.

Her retirement officially begins Sunday, Aug. 1.

Bergdahl’s career has taken her many places and she has taken on many duties.

After graduating from Lester Prairie High School in 1985, she spent four years at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO, where she was commissioned in 1989.

From there, she went to Texas to begin training as a pilot.

At that time, only about 10 to 12 percent of Air Force pilots were women, according to Bergdahl. That number has increased slightly, to about 15 percent today. Her class at the academy was the 10th to include females.

Women represented only about 3 percent of the total flying community when Bergdahl began her career. That percentage has increased to about 8 to 10 percent today.

Bergdahl said some women had a difficult time at the academy, but overall, her experience was positive.

“I grew up with three older brothers,” she explained, noting that she was able to hold her own among the male cadets.

While in Texas, Bergdahl trained on T-37 and T-38 jet aircraft.

Later, she flew Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers. These are the primary aerial refueling tankers used by the Air Force.

“Precision and stability” are the key requirements, according to Bergdahl. The tanker pilot’s job is to keep things as smooth as possible.

During the transfer of fuel, the aircraft travel at speeds ranging from 130 knots (about 145 mph) to 335 knots (370 mph), depending on the aircraft type, according to Bergdahl.

Her first deployment took her to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm.

She also flew missions supporting the no-fly zone over Bosnia.

Later, she was stationed in Grand Forks, where she completed her master’s degree in experimental psychology.

She then became an assistant professor at the Air Force Academy.

Bergdahl said one of her best flying assignments was teaching new cadets how to fly motorized gliders.

Some of them had never been in a plane before, and it was rewarding for her to give them their first experience, and take them to the point where they could solo.

“Flying is fun,” she said.

Continuing her education and sharing her love of flying have been key elements in Bergdahl’s career.

At one point, she was the only female flyer in the cadet area, and she became a mentor for female cadets who asked her why they should become pilots.

When the Air Force introduced the Predator unmanned aircraft system, Bergdahl was among the first pilots to operate them.

She became director of operations of the Predator program while stationed in Kuwait in 1999-2000.

The Predator system is operated by two people, a pilot and a sensor operator who work from adjacent computer stations.

The pilot controls takeoff, flies the mission, and lands the aircraft using a computer keyboard.

The most difficult part, according to Bergdahl, is the landing, because the pilot has no peripheral vision.

There is only about a 6-inch margin of error, she said.

Bergdahl feels fortunate to have had a lot of variety in her career.

“I’ve never had a chance to get bored,” she said.

Later, she returned to Grand Forks. She had earned the rank of major by that time.

She served as both a group executive officer in the operations group, and a wing executive officer.

She said this was an eye-opening experience for her, because she had been a flyer for her entire career, and command gave her a much broader perspective.

Bergdahl became an instructor pilot, and was deployed to Turkey during Operation Northern Watch.

Bergdahl was director of operations at Altus (OK) Air Force Base during Hurricane Katrina.

This is a training base, and she was required to maintain a full training schedule, while at the same time, flying relief operations in the wake of the hurricane.

“The training pipeline cannot stop,” she explained.

These missions included evacuating people, which they did by having people lay on the floor of the aircraft and then strapping them down. This allowed them to carry as many people as possible.

By this time, she had been upgraded to evaluator pilot, and later an instructors’ instructor (she trained the instructors, who then trained other pilots).

During her career, she was responsible for refuelling many aircraft, including refueling the Thunderbirds once, when the group was passing her area.

Bergdahl took command of a training squadron and was in charge of training worldwide.

She was responsible for about 600 students, including about 180 teenagers.

This provided some unique challenges, but was one of the most rewarding assignments of her career.

“For the first time, I was in a position to help people, both in their careers and in their personal lives,” she said.

One of her last assignments was serving as director of the International Military Student Office for the Marine Corps.

Officers from all over the world, many of whom were the high-level officers in their home countries, participated in the program.

Bergdahl’s mission was to show the officers and their families what America and Americans are like.

“People are people,” she said. “We are all looking for security and peace, and the freedom to live our lives as we choose.”

Bergdahl’s first mission as a civilian will be to take her daughters on a four-week trip to Europe.

She has two daughters and one step-daughter, ages 11 to 17.

“I have missed my share of Christmases and birthdays,” Bergdahl said. She looks forward to experiencing the culture of Europe with her daughters.

Her husband, Brian, who is also a retired Air Force pilot, and now works at the Pentagon, will join them for the last week of the trip.

Bergdahl said after the trip, she will take on “the hardest job in the world – being a stay-at-home mom.”

Bergdahl recommends a military career to young people.

“You don’t need to have any skills. They will train you and give you experience,” she said. “Even if you leave (after original enlistment period), you will be well ahead of your peers in training and experience, and you will have a chance to serve the greatest nation in the world.”

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