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A conversation with Cathy McClain

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, at 7:07 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, at 6:39 a.m.

In her career, Cathy McClain has flown aerial refueling tankers, served as a wing commander at McConnell Air Force Base and worked at the Pentagon.

After retiring from the Air Force in 2007, she joined Boeing Wichita as B-52 program manager.

Last year, McClain left Boeing to join Spirit AeroSystems, where she serves as director of Spirit’s business and regional jet programs.

When Boeing announced it was leaving Wichita, she declined a transfer to Oklahoma City for family reasons.

“After moving around with the Air Force for 25 years, I wasn’t interested in packing up and moving the kids again,” McClain said. “Fortunately, I found an opening at Spirit.”

She joined Spirit as director of its program management Center of Excellence in June 2012.

In May, McClain assumed a new role leading the business and regional jet programs.

“I went from a teacher-mentor role to an in-the-trenches role,” McClain said.

McClain, 53, grew up in Orange, Texas, before earning an engineering degree at the Air Force Academy.

She has been assigned to McConnell three times, including her term from 2004 to 2006 as wing commander for the 22nd Air Refueling Wing.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, she was deployed three times, flying KC-135 tankers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2006, she left Wichita for an assignment at the Air Force General Management Office at the Pentagon to serve as the human resources person for the general officer corps.

While in Washington, McClain flew home to Wichita every two or three weeks to see her children. She turned down an offer to stay there another year.

“It was time for the kids to have a mom who was home,” McClain said. “Wichita was the place I wanted to raise them. That’s why I declined Boeing’s offer to move” to Oklahoma City.

McClain is married and has three children, ages 20, 18 and 17, and two stepchildren, ages 21 and 19.

Outside work, her life is centered on family and family activities. She also has signed up for a boxing boot camp class at the YMCA and enjoys quiet time, when she can find it.

What regional and business jet programs do you work with at Spirit?

Spirit is designing and building the pylon for the Mitsubishi regional jet; we’re designing and building the pylon for the Bombardier regional jet. And we designed and are building and assembling the nacelles and thrust reversers around the Rolls Royce BR725 engine (for the Gulfstream G650 business jet).

What’s the biggest challenge of your job?

The biggest challenge – and I find it very exciting – is to work with international customers. … It’s very interesting to have three different international customers: Rolls Royce in Germany, Bombardier in Canada and Mitsubishi in Japan. It’s been a lot of fun.

You mentioned that it’s different working with international customers because of language and cultural differences. What has been the biggest difference you’ve found?

The biggest cultural difference is with Mitsubishi and the Japanese. They are very, very gracious and formal when we interact with them. They’re truly a pleasure to work with. It’s just more formal than how we interact here in the United States.

What do you find most satisfying about your job?

I love leading people and leading teams. That has been the theme with whatever job I have held or what uniform I wore.

At Boeing you worked with military programs. What’s the biggest change you’ve found in switching from military programs to commercial programs at Spirit?

The biggest change is when you do military programs, there is an incredible amount of oversight, as there should be because we’re spending tax dollars. In the commercial arena, while there is oversight that’s required, it’s a slightly different focus. For one, we don’t have the oversight and reporting requirements that you have in the defense world. But all the financial and negotiations that we do on the commercial side has a direct impact on the profitability and the people who work here.

Do you get involved in the negotiations?

I do get involved. I’m very closely flanked by experts and contract and legal. Whatever they’re going to sign up to do, I have to execute. So we’re all there together as a team.

What’s your biggest management advice to other managers?

You must balance work and family. I think I learned the hard way over an Air Force career. I didn’t always do a good job of balancing.

What is one thing many people might not know about you?

I’m a big “Star Trek” fan. I cut my teeth on “Star Trek” in the ’60s way back with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. … I can be the ultimate geek.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mmcmillin.

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