(KTXL) — Colonel Heather Fox, who recently left her post as commander of Beale Air Force Base, may be the most ‘down to Earth’ commander, despite spending close to 3,000 hours 30,000 feet above the Earth.
In 2020, Fox had taken command of Beale Air Force Base and more than 7,000 personnel.
Her career spans two decades of flying missions over Iraq and Afghanistan in some of the most highly specialized fighter jets and surveillance planes.
“I like to call it action nerd. Not just nerd but action nerd,” said Fox.
Although Fox has proven herself in the air, it was time for her to prove herself on the ground too.
“The thing that I’m most proud of was creating an environment, I hope that allowed our airmen to excel and succeed in this constant 24/7 mission environment but then add a global pandemic and wildfires and toxic air and all those challenges,” she said.
At the same time, Fox had to mobilize thousands of personnel and an arsenal of fighter jets to get fire crews the critical information they needed to protect California from some of the worst wildfires.
“There’s something almost intoxicating about being able to pick up the phone and make a positive difference in people’s lives or change things for the better for the installation and the nation,” said Fox.
Making a difference for Fox became personal as she fought to get the stigma of mental health treatment out of base life and out of the Air Force.
“Relationship, anxiety, depression, loneliness .. all those kinds of things. This is the normal part of human existence.”
It was a battle that originated over enemy territory, flying a $50 million U-2 spy plane; A neurological event called decompression sickness.
“Over Afghanistan. I had nitrogen bubbles coming out of my brain. It’s almost like having a minor stroke wherever those bubbles come out,” Fox said.
Fighting to stay conscious, she contemplated ejecting over the Persian Gulf. She made it back to base but it left Fox with panic attacks and overwhelming anxiety in places where she felt trapped. Places like the one place she felt most free, the cockpit of a fighter jet.
“I was worried it would impact my flying career if I fessed up, but finally I got to the point where I had to fess up.”
An admission that colonel Fox later realized, would profoundly change the expectation that air force pilots be at the top of their physical and mental game 100% of the time.
“That actually makes you smart, makes you brave, make you resilient,” she said.
This opened the door for many other airmen to do the same, on the ground and in the air. Beale Air Force Base built a reputation under Colonel Fox’s command and change is on the horizon.