As part of the program in KO’s Margaret E and Henry R. Roberts Center for Leadership, students engage in forums to speak with successful alumni and local business leaders to gain insights on leadership skills. This Friday, KO’s Lunch and Lead series featured KO alum Derek Green ’81, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force who served for 22 years in the Air Force with increasingly impressive roles and responsibilities.
Following his career as an electrical engineer at Westinghouse, he joined the United States Air Force initially as a Flight Commander, Chief Pilot, Acquisition Program Manager, Supervisor of Flying, and combat pilot during the Gulf War. His stellar field performance led him to a management position within the Pentagon, supervising 15 Air Force programs with a budget of $6.3B, including Air Force One. He also wrote Air Force policy for these programs. Later he was selected as a VIP Pilot for the White House, Department of Defense, and Congress, flying out of Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, DC. There, he became Commander of Operational Support for the 201st Airlift Group. In 2003, NASA selected Green as an astronaut candidate.
In 2007, he left the Air Force and began his career with General Electric, where he was General Manager of GE's Global Flight Operations Division, managing all the global flight operations for GE. Mr. Green left GE in 2014 and is now a consultant and the Chief Operating Officer for Miracle Mansion.
Green was inspired to enter the airforce at a young age. “Ever since I was six, I wanted to be an astronaut, seeing Neil and Buzz bouncing along the moon in the summer of ‘69,” he said. “My mom told me to go to bed, and after she went to bed and I went downstairs and watched more of the lunar walk.” After learning that all the astronauts were military fighters and had engineering degrees, Green knew the path he had to follow. “Turns out, after I was in, I was a lifer. I stayed in the airforce for 22 years.”
One student asked Green how he stays calm in intense situations. While externally, Green may look calm and collected, he shared that inside his brain is a “helmet fire,” a voice inside screaming the directions. “It’s all about training, training, training,” Green said. “When you do these multiple tasks under pressure, it becomes natural. That’s how you look calm. I don’t think anyone gets calm. It’s kind of like public speaking.”
Green said one of his toughest times at KO was in Dick Dale’s history class when he had to deliver a two-minute presentation in front of nine of his peers. “I froze. I messed up so badly, and Dick Dale put me through my paces. That year I won the public speaking award because I learned to practice over and over and over again.”
During one mission, as Green flew a 400,000 lbs. lumbering jet into Somalia at night, his jet came under attack from tracers. Automatically, his military training kicked in. “Right away, I went through the combat entry checklist because the last thing you want is a bullet to hit your pressurized aircraft. You get a hole in there, and that starts to spread it’s like popcorn. I had nine people counting on me. I turned the lights off and depressurized the plane. I turned out, went over the water and came back in from the water, and did an overhead approach. I wasn't being creative. That was training, training, training. All that I was trying to do was to stay alive.”
Green counts KO as one of the foundational experiences in his life. While at KO, Green was an athlete, musician, and academic and could mix with various social groups.” I could talk to anyone,” he said. “That’s going to serve you well. If you lead, people are either going to follow you because they like you or they can connect with you. I learned that here. That whole thing about hard work. I learned that here, too.”
“I didn’t understand our motto about 'conquering yourself' when I was here. They were words on a shield. Now, it is as clear as day. Doing the stuff that you have to do so, you can do the stuff that you want to do. All that I learned here."
Green fell short of achieving his dream of becoming an astronaut since he lacked the stellar eyesight required for the job. He was very disappointed and didn’t share the news with his wife for a week. He told the students not to be deterred when disappointment strikes since it doesn’t spell the end.
“When it’s your time, and you’re building the foundational guidelines, you will be able to go into any field,” he said. “Keep studying; keep having that work ethic; keep moving forward. I'm an ordained minister, and my worldview is all about people. If what I do does not help people, shame on me. I should be able to be a positive addition to the community. And that’s what wakes me up every morning - the promise of doing something helpful.”