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Pilot Program

[clearboth] From Black Hawk Pilot to Motivational Speaker,
Elizabeth McCormick ’93 is Charting New Territory for Women

By Doug Goodnough

If you’re going to shatter a glass ceiling, why not do it flying a Black Hawk helicopter?

Elizabeth Vasher McCormick ’93 was one of the rare females to make it through a male-dominated U.S. Army flight school and become a helicopter pilot. After serving her country with honor for seven years, including flying peacekeeping missions in Kosovo, an injury ended her career as a Black Hawk pilot. However, it began another career path. Now, as an author and a motivational speaker, McCormick travels the world sharing her story of perseverance and personal success.

It Started at Siena Heights

After graduating from Siena Heights with a degree in art, McCormick intended to pursue a career in architectural engineering. However, as a 23-year-old “Army wife” living in Fort Polk, La., she said she soon felt another calling.

“I decided to put my degree to use in service to our country,” McCormick said of enlisting in the Army. “Because of my degree from Siena Heights, I knew I could go into the Army as an officer and that I had the potential to do and be anything.”

The “Coolest Job Possible”

“There were no male or female standards, there was a ‘warrant officer standard,’ ” McCormick said of the grueling training regimen she would encounter. “That meant running two miles, three miles, four miles in the formation with the men. Doing push-ups (on her toes) the same as the men. The physicality of it was demanding.”After doing a little research, she decided she wanted to have the “coolest job possible.” That job was a helicopter pilot. First, she completed all-female basic training. However, she soon discovered just how difficult her task of becoming a pilot was going to be when reporting to Warrant Officer Candidate School at Fort Rucker, Ala.

Seven women started the pilot training program. Only two women finished. One was McCormick.

“At the end of the six weeks, I could do 83 push-ups on my toes in two minutes and had emerged as the top female leader and the number one graduate in the class,” she said.

Next came flight school, which came with its own set of challenges.

“It’s unlike anything else I had experienced,” McCormick said of the training, which she called “multi-tasking on steroids.”

One of her first tasks was learning how to hover, which she said is one of the hardest piloting skills to master.

“It’s how you move the helicopter from the landing pad to anywhere,” she said.

Pilots have to use both hands as well as their feet simultaneously to control the helicopter.

“Oh, and you’re scanning outside the windows to be sure you don’t hit a tree, a power line, another aircraft,” she said. “And wait, you’ve got a helmet on with a microphone and you’re talking to air traffic control and internally to your crew—all at the same time!”

Comfort Zone vs. Belief Zone

But she said the technical training she endured wasn’t as challenging as was the verbal abuse she constantly received from her flight instructor.

“I drew the flight instructor who did not believe women should fly,” McCormick said. “And he tried to fail me every day by screaming at me.”

She said it affected her confidence and ultimately her performance.

“The instructor would take the controls away from me and berate me,” she said. “(He would say) ‘You’re stupid! You don’t deserve to be here! You’re wasting my time!’ Over and over again.”

A turning point in McCormick’s training came when her regular instructor left for a week’s vacation. The substitute instructor gave McCormick the needed confidence, and despite the adversity, she was able to pass her final check ride exam.

“When things got hard, I would think, ‘Why did God give me this vision of being a helicopter pilot if I wasn’t meant to be one?’” she said. “I had to trust the vision and my abilities despite the difficulties. … Everyone has a choice to live in their comfort zone or in a belief zone. … But my belief zone was that I was where I was supposed to be.”

Learning to Serve

One of her first missions after completing flight school was assisting in the rescue and cleanup after Hurricane Hugo hit the Gulf states in 1994.

“In that weekend, I learned what being in service really meant,” McCormick said. “It wasn’t pretty or glamorous; it was about serving and leading others above self to do what was right.”

Her service eventually took her to war-torn Kosovo, where she flew her Black Hawk Sikorsky as part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission. Her missions included air assault and rappelling, command and control and military intelligence. During her six years as a pilot, she received the Army Commendation Medal twice, the Army Achievement medal three times, a National Defense Service Medal, the Humanitarian Serv-ice Medal, the Army Service Ribbon and the Army Aviator Badge.

“The award I am most proud of is receiving the Humanitarian Service Medal,” she said of the honor she earned for the Hurricane Hugo mission. “We made a difference (and) had an impact in those lives that weekend.”

Changing Course

McCormick’s career as a pilot ended when she suffered a disabling injury right before Sept. 11, 2001. Medically retiring from the Army as a Chief Warrant Offi-cer 2, McCormick was now grounded for good as a pilot.

But another career soon took off. Moving to the Dallas/Fort Worth area, McCormick used her mathematics minor to work her way up in the corporate world. She started as an inventory accountant and then advanced to materials manager before being promoted to an international contract negotiator.

“During this time, my community ‘discovered’ that I was a helicopter pilot, and I started getting asked to speak at events for schools, churches and youths,” McCormick said. “Word spread about my speeches, and more offers to speak flooded my email inbox along with offers to pay me for my time and travel.”

When her office branch announced it was closing, it was the push she need-ed to make motivational speaking and writing her full-time career. She was a founding member of the John Maxwell team of speakers, coaches and trainers. In October 2013, she released her sixth book, “The P.I.L.O.T. Method: The Five Elemental Truths to Leading Yourself in Life.” She currently has a full schedule of speaking appearances that will take her to places like South Africa and Vietnam in the coming months.

“Much like deciding to fly a helicopter, becoming a motivational speaker came to me and chose me,” said McCormick, who has spoken to more than 150 audiences and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, ABC News and CBS News among others. She also conducts corporate leadership training for companies like Coca-Cola, Lockheed Martin and Sherwin Williams.

She said her goal is to become the next Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins or John Maxwell “because all the top motivational speakers are men, and it’s time for me to shatter that glass ceiling now!” she said.

In 2011, McCormick received the Congressional Veteran Commendation from U.S. Senator Sam Johnson for her commitment and duty and community as a military veteran (right).

A Motivational Message

While at Siena Heights, McCormick credited faculty members like Tim Husband and Carl Kaster for opening up her mind to new opportunities and goals.

“Siena’s mission to become competent, purposeful and ethical stayed with me in my military service,” she said. “It was about becoming my best self every day.”

The Sand Creek, Mich., native said she has her own motivational message to Siena Heights students.

“Believe in yourself and your abilities first,” said McCormick, whose parents, Tim ’84, and Mary ’81 are also Siena Heights graduates. “Build your confidence from within, then lead yourself in the actions to your desired outcome.

“If I hadn’t been injured, would I still be flying? Oh yeah!” she continued. “Do I miss it every day? Oh yeah! But if I hadn’t gone through all the struggles while serving, the injury, would I have the message I share today? … My life would have gone in a completely different direction, and now, I’m so fully in my purpose, my calling, to inspire leadership at a personal level, that I can’t imagine a different outcome.”

Elizabeth McCormick has released her sixth and latest book, “The P.I.L.O.T. Method: The Five Elementary Truths to Leading Yourself in Life.” In it, she outlines the principles of self-leadership:

: is for Potential, believing in your abilities,

I: is for Implementation, as you have to take action to reach your potential,

L: is for Leadership and outlines my three pillars of leadership as they relate to aviation—communicate, aviate (take action)and navigate (define your vision),

O: is for Optimize your life, creating a sustainable and maintainable level of higher performance (after all who wants to fly with an average pilot). And,

T: is for Tenacity, not giving up, even when it’s hard.

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