Barbara Barrett: the accidental astronaut

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 Margie Goldsmith talks to Barbara Barrett, a trained astronaut and advisor to five american presidents on trade and defence policy

Barbara Barrett, former US Ambassador to Finland, is a trained astronaut and has served as an advisor to five American presidents on trade and defence policy. An executive of two Fortune 500 companies, she has served on 10 corporate and more than 50 non-profit boards, was Vice Chairman of the United States Civil Aeronautics Board, Deputy Administrator of the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and a partner in a Phoenix, Arizona law firm. She has taught leadership at Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government and was a candidate for the Governor of Arizona. Presently, Barrett is Chairman of the Board of Aerospace Corporation, serves on the Smithsonian Board of Regents and the board of the RAND Corporation.  She travels by private jet most frequently for business but also with her husband Craig Barrett, retired Chairman and CEO of Intel. They frequently fly from their home in Paradise Valley near Phoenix, Arizona, to the Montana Rockies, where the Barretts own the award-winning luxury resort, Triple Creek Ranch.

Barbara Barrett was born on a farm in Indiana County, Pennsylvania, the second of six children. Her father, a factory worker, also eked out a living as a subsistence farmer. At 10 years old, Barrett could drive a car, milk a cow, and shoe, saddle and feed the family’s 24 horses. By 12, the young girl was guiding trail rides. Her father dreamed of taking the family to Arizona where he had been a cowboy. Unfortunately, he died when Barrett was just 13. After his death, young Barrett rose to the occasion and took care of her mother and her five siblings. This is a true ‘rags to riches’ story that Horatio Alger could easily have written, but we decided to let Barbara Barrett tell her own story.

Q: Did your father give you any advice?

A: He asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Being of that certain generation, I knew I had three choices: teacher, secretary, or nurse. I said “nurse,” and he said, “Why not a doctor?” That was my breakaway moment; I was freed to believe that my gender could do whatever we wanted. Ever since, I’ve always said to myself, “I can do this.”

Q: While at Arizona State University, you became a state legislative intern for the then-Senator Sandra Day O’Connor (the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court). What was that like?

A: At the time, she was the first American woman majority leader of any state house or senate. She was an extraordinary role model, and opened my mind to thinking that in the future, women would have access to good jobs. She was a lawyer so I thought I could get a law degree. And while she was married to a wonderful guy, she wasn’t in the job because of her husband; she was in the job because she was great.

Q: You went to law school, clerked at a Fortune 500 company, joined a Phoenix, Arizona law firm, and then went to Washington DC as a Civil Aeronautics board vice-chairman. Then what?

A: I came back to Arizona and joined a law firm first as counsel, then as a partner. I went back to Washington DC and became the deputy administrator (the #2 spot) in the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). Then I practised law and started serving on corporate boards. I was CEO of the AMA (American Management Association).

Q: Then you became a corporate officer of another Fortune 500 company. Wasn’t that around the time you met your husband, Craig Barrett?

A: Yes, in 1979. One late afternoon I hiked up Squaw Peak (now called Piestewa Peak) in Phoenix, Arizona. I arrived at the summit and was watching the setting sun when I heard a man’s footsteps. We began to chat and he said he was a manager in a small electronics firm; I figured he was the night clerk at Radio Shack. It turned out he was the General Manager of Intel Corporation and is now the retired Chairman and CEO.

Q: You’re an accidental astronaut. How did that happen?

A: Space Adventures, which runs the space tourism programmes and whose CEO I knew, had an unexpected short lead-time seat available for a backup astronaut. They had their primary astronaut, but they didn’t have a backup. They thought I was fit enough, and as a pilot, thought I’d have the basic aeronautical understanding. Normally, it takes years to become a professional astronaut, but in my case, it was a very compressed four and one-half month training programme. You still have to do the whole syllabus, and they won’t let you launch unless you’ve passed all the exams.

Q: Let’s go back a second. You said you had your pilot’s licence?

A: My Dad, who didn’t want us to be afraid of flying, took my brother and me on a short flight in a four-seater Piper Cub when I was about six years old. I wasn’t afraid – I loved it! It inspired me one Christmas to gift my husband with pilot licence training. He didn’t care about flying, so I did the training and became a pilot.

Q: Do you fly now?

A: I stay current but I don’t fly enough; so now I usually fly only with an instructor pilot.

Q: In 1994, you were the first female Republican candidate to run for Governor of Arizona.  Would you do it again?

A: It’s a knock-down tough business, but it ended up being an absolute joy and I wouldn’t shy away from doing it again. You never say never in politics.

Q: You were the first civilian woman to land in an FA-18 Hornet on an aircraft carrier. How did that happen?

A: I was a civilian advisor to the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. At the time, women could fly tankers and transports but not fighters or bombers. A law had been passed in 1948 that precluded women from flying aircraft “engaged in combat”. We saw the law changed. I believe that fathers of daughters often work magic to let women have the opportunity to prove themselves. An admiral, who was the father of daughters, invited me to train up and see if I could qualify to fly an F-18. I had the privilege of landing in an F-18 Hornet on an aircraft carrier, the Nimitz.

Q: How did you happen to become Ambassador to Finland and what was it like?

A: There was an unexpected opening and I was asked if I’d be willing to do it. The privilege of serving America in a foreign country was a significant responsibility. I hoped to exemplify public diplomacy as ambassador. I made a special effort to communicate with the people of Finland, not just the government. I had a great time bicycling across Finland, rounding up reindeer, dog sledding, downhill and cross-country skiing. The Finnish Air Force flies American-made F-18s. The Chief of Staff of the Finnish Air Force challenged me to a dogfight in the skies over northern Finland.

Q: Who won?

A: He got me once, I got him once. It was a diplomatic solution, so we didn’t do a match-breaker. My flight brought home that message.

Q: You’ve been Deputy Administrator of the FAA and Vice Chair of the CAB (Civil Aeronautics Board). What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about aviation?

A: Through time, commerce has gone where transportation is available. Camel caravans on the Silk Route were an early method of commerce. Then ships led commerce where waterways were the means of transportation. In our age, commerce moves by aviation. Sure, rail, car and bus are important; but time-sensitive, perishable and high-value products go by air. And so today, aviation is commerce. The economy moves on the wings of aircraft.

Q: I understand that each year you make a ‘life list’?

A: For decades I’ve been keeping a ‘life list’. Every year around the holidays, I look back and say, “What did I do this year that was a life-enriching moment?” And then I say, “What are the things I’d like to do in my life?” Each year, I try to do one exertive vacation, something that will either make me get in shape and stay in shape or I’m going to hurt. Climbing Kilimanjaro, hiking New Zealand’s Milford Trek, bicycling across Finland, summiting Mt Whitney and hiking the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim have helped me stay in shape. It’s not so much an adventure; it’s my version of a fitness programme.

Q: I know you are deeply concerned with economic opportunity for women?

A: My mother was struck – through no action of her own – by the sudden death of my father, who had a heart attack. One moment she was comfortably a wife and mother, not financially well off, but okay. And all of a sudden, she was widowed with six kids and dependent on unskilled local jobs. That inspired me to believe that women need to have alternatives. You don’t know what life is going to deal you, so you need to have the ability to help yourself.

Q: What is your passion?

A: I love life; I love people, and I love to open opportunities for people. My passion is education and helping women develop their full potential. My astronaut patch said ‘Knowledge is the Gateway’. Knowledge opens doors.

Q: In 1983, you and your husband purchased Triple Creek Ranch. Why did you buy this ranch?

A: Twenty years ago, we wanted a second home, a retreat someplace among mountains and adjacent to a national forest or national park. We’d gone to Triple Creek Ranch as guests and loved the majestic mountains. And when it came up for sale, we bought the ranch. We made many changes: we took down some cabins, expanded and freshened up others, and built more upscale luxury cabins. We upgraded the wine cellar, food and landscaping; we added western wall art and sculptures. And since then, we’ve tripled the size of the guest ranch and added an additional 26,000 acres of cattle ranch and nature preserve. And we’ve added a couple hundred head of bison – the iconic American buffalo.

Q: How much time do you spend there?

A: We’re at Triple Creek Ranch at least once a month consistently since we bought it.

Q: How do you get there?

A: We fly privately into Ravalli County Airport in Hamilton, Montana.

Q: Why do you travel privately?

A: Private flying just makes sense. We get closer access, save ground time and avoid the uncertainty of missed connections. It’s much faster and more convenient. Private flight is more efficient and convenient and with my packed schedule, it is more reliable.

Q: Do you own? Charter?

A: We charter.

Q: When you charter, which outfit do you choose?

A: It varies. I generally look at the options. I’m an equal opportunity user, not consistently with any one provider.

Q: Do you have a preference in planes?

A: If it’s a close hop, we’ll often use a small Citation or a Lear. But Hawkers on longer hauls, or sometimes for special travel, Gulfstreams and Challengers.

Q: If you were going to upgrade from your existing plane, which model would you most like to move to?

A: To get to Triple Creek Ranch, nearby is a small airport, which can’t handle a very large jet, so we use small jets there. But for the long-haul transcontinental or intercontinental flights, then a Challenger or Gulfstream would be a dream – or a Cessna Citation. Citation 10 is terrific because it’s so fast.

Q: Is that what you would buy today if you were going to buy a jet?

A: A Citation 10 is fabulous for big airports but not good for Montana’s smaller airfields. That’s the trade-off. So chartering allows me to adjust the aircraft type for the destination.

Q: Do you give any thought to catering on flights? Do you specify any requirement as opposed to leaving it up to the operator?

A: My go-to answer is a shrimp cocktail, because almost every place can do a shrimp cocktail. When all else fails, a shrimp cocktail usually works.

Q: What’s a typical day like for you?

A: There aren’t many typical days. Today is a desk day for me, so I got up before six, ran a mile and a half, and am doing desk work until I fly to California to give the talk for the Smithsonian tonight in Burbank. I have a meeting tomorrow morning with an Air Force general officer, and then I have a Caltech board meeting.

Q: You’ve done so much. Do you have any goals for the future?

A: What I really spend a lot of time on these days is working to make the world a better place for people in whatever ways I’m able. I spend a lot of time on university projects especially STEM for girls, working to help women in war-torn and impoverished areas, helping women become economically empowered, helping women start businesses to provide economic stability for themselves and their families.

Q: What does leadership mean to you?

A: It means having a vision, and being of such a character that other people are willing to sign up to pursue and accomplish that vision.