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Groundbreaking female U.S. Air Force pilot was fired for ‘scolding subordinates like children’

One of the highest-ranking female pilots in the U.S. Air Force berated and belittled her subordinates, reducing them to tears at times, according to an internal investigation that led to her firing.

Maj. Gen. Dawn Dunlop was the first woman to become a fighter test pilot, fly an F-22, and command a test wing.

A 1988 graduate of the Air Force Academy, Dunlop has logged more than 3,500 hours flying aircraft including F-15, F-16 and F-22 fighters, according to the Air Force. 

After graduating from the academy, she was the top graduate from her class at the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB. 

Recently, Dunlop was featured alongside other female Air Force aviators in recruiting videos shown alongside the film, Captain Marvel, released in March.

The film featured Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, whose alter ego is an Air Force F-16 pilot. 

Dunlop from August 2018 led the Pentagon office responsible for overseeing some of the military’s closest-held secret programs, but was fired in May 2019.

Dunlop was removed as director of the Special Access Programs Control Office, or SAPCO, and now serves as the Air Force’s director of capability requirements.

A January 2020 report by the Inspector General, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request made by the Air Force Times, laid bare the reasons for Dunlop’s removal.

A few weeks after taking over the SAPCO office, witnesses said Dunlop began treating subordinates there disrespectfully, according to the IG report. 

The belittling occurred on roughly a weekly, but sometimes daily, basis, the report said.

Dunlop commonly demeaned her subordinates when they failed to live up to her expectations, was unprofessionally insulting, and regularly implied they were stupid, said witnesses. 

Several of them used terms like ‘dictatorial’ and ‘borderline abusive’ to characterize her leadership style, and described her as treating subordinates like a ‘parent scolding a child.’

‘That’s the environment we were in, nothing was ever right,’ said one unidentified witness.

Witnesses also described Dunlop is an extraordinarily talented and accomplished officer who meant well and wanted the Air Force to succeed. 

She believed that SAPCO was a broken organization that she was meant to come in and fix.

But her leadership style caused several witnesses to say they lost respect for her and question how she had reached the level of major general.

In a statement provided to Air Force Times, Dunlop’s lawyer, Gary Myers, suggested that Dunlop’s efforts to reform SAPCO led to the IG complaint against her.

‘Throughout her career, Maj. Gen. Dunlop has brought a clear sense of integrity, excellence and a strong desire to serve airmen and the nation,’ Myers said. 

‘She has always been willing to work with others to take on difficult change where needed to deliver results in support of these values.’

After she was assigned to lead SAPCO, ‘she endeavored to identify and undertake actions to better align the SAPCO enterprise with the Secretary of Defense priorities and SAP community needs,’ Myers continued. 

‘Her implementation of these efforts resulted in an inspector general complaint in May 2019. The IG allegations and report of investigation do not reflect who she is as a person, her values or her dedicated service of over 30 years.’

Myers said that Dunlop is grateful that the Air Force considered her response alongside the IG report when deciding to allow her to continue serving.

Dunlop ‘has gained invaluable insight and perspective from this experience, and by reading the feelings of others clearly expressed in the IG report,’ Myers said.

The report lists several incidents where Dunlop publicly berated subordinates, including by calling someone’s work ‘crap’ in the middle of a meeting and publicly denigrate the quality of people’s writing.

Her behavior crushed morale in SAPCO, the report said. 

Several people began having trouble at work, including ‘being afraid,’ losing sleep, quitting or seriously considering quitting, and not wanting to speak up at staff meetings. 

Some people physically shook from fear when they had to deal with Dunlop, a witness said.

People also retreated from weekly meetings of a working group of top Special Access Programs officials to avoid provoking her ire.

One witness called Dunlop a ‘prize fighter’ who relished ‘be[ing] in the middle of the ring and … slug[ging] it out.’ 

Several witnesses said they tried to talk to Dunlop about the way she was acting in meetings and the climate in the SAPCO office, but found her unreceptive to the feedback. 

Dunlop’s confrontational leadership style reached a boiling point on Jan. 4, 2019, when she grabbed a shocked subordinate’s hand without her permission to get her attention during a dispute over her calendar and a visitor coming in for coffee.

The subordinate told investigators that Dunlop ‘just went ballistic’ when she found out a visitor, with whom Dunlop had a coffee appointment, was first going to stop by her office. 

Dunlop scolded the subordinate for not telling her the visitor was coming up and said she was concerned the visitor would see bare walls in her office and askew coat hangars and papers on her desk. 

Dunlop allegedly raised her voice and told the subordinate: ‘Look at me, look at me please.’ 

Several witnesses said it was ‘completely inappropriate’ and ‘unbecoming’ for a general officer like Dunlop to put a hand on a subordinate like that.

‘If it were a male general, he might be done that day … if he had grabbed a 115 pound lady like that,’ one witness said.

The IG concluded Dunlop’s confrontation with her subordinate, over a minor issue, ‘compromised her standing as an officer,’ and caused her subordinate to recoil in shock. 

Her behavior, they ruled, was indecorous and in violation of rules barring conduct unbecoming an officer. 

In May 2019, Dunlop provoked another senior officer to storm out of a meeting in tears. 

Dunlop was irritated because three Air Force officers had showed up to a meeting to prepare slides to brief senior military leaders, but Dunlop only thought one Air Force briefer was necessary. 

In a separate IG report, dated November 2019, witnesses said Dunlop improperly had her subordinates perform personal services for her while serving as the commander of the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force at Geilenkirchen, in Germany.

She served in the role from 2016 to 2018.

Subordinates helped Dunlop by swapping out the summer tires for winter tires, and vice versa, on her personal vehicle four or five times, as well as getting an oil change done and making personal lodging arrangements. 

When Dunlop was transferring back to the United States in August 2018, a subordinate helped Dunlop get her car shipped back by driving it around until it had burned off enough fuel to qualify for shipping, and also sold her winter tires for her. 

The IG report concluded that having subordinates do these personal tasks for her were violations of Defense Department ethics regulations and part of a ‘pattern of personnel misuse’ during her command in Germany.

In his statement, Myers said that Dunlop regrets accepting those services from her subordinates, and said they were unintentional violations.  

‘She is committed to incorporating these lessons learned as she moves forward in her current position,’ Myers said.   

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