Brigadier General Thornton Retiring After 30-year Career
Brigadier General William Thornton
Bulletin Staff Writer
A new year means different things for different people, but for Bellingham’s highest-ranking military officer, the 2015 calendar translates to retirement for William Thornton, who became a Brigadier General four years ago. Thornton, pictured above, who is retiring after a 30-year career, graduated from Bellingham High in 1980, earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science from Northeastern University in 1984, then joined the Air Force. Starting his military career as a lieutenant, Thornton rose to the ranks of captain, major, lieutenant colonel, colonel, then general.
The 52-year-old Thornton directed air, space and information operations for Air Force Material Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, for the last four years. “AFMC is a major command within the US Air Force,” Thornton said. “I was responsible for over 80,000 personnel at numerous Air Force bases around the country. My primary role was to set policy for flight operations and perform various headquarters functions for units in the field.”
Thornton, who was appointed a general on May 7, 2010, has been on 45 combat missions. As a captain from 1991 to 1993, he flew missions over northern Iraq to enforce the no-fly zone. While assigned to the Pentagon, Thornton deployed to southwest Asia and led the Mobile Targets Division, developing and executing daily strike plans.
“The time has come to pursue new opportunities and adventures,” Thornton said. “I’m eager to serve my country and my community in other ways. I’m not sure about the future, but I have talked with companies in the aerospace industry. One avenue I definitely want to pursue is writing. I want to see American history and civics taught in public schools again. Young people should know the great things this nation has done, the values it represents and how our government is supposed to function.”
As a colonel at Edwards Air Force Base in California, Thornton’s 412 Test Wing supplied data, test results and recommendations that directly influenced major aerospace acquisition programs. He was responsible for 6,000 individuals (airmen, government civilians and contractors). Essentially, the Wing is the mission arm of the Air Force Flight Test Center. “We did all the developmental ground and flight tests at Edwards,” he said. “We planned, executed, analyzed and reported on aircraft and systems. The reports included recommendations for further operational testing. I always wanted to be a pilot, and I like testing equipment. You name it and I’ve flown it. At Edwards, we had B-2s, F-35s, F-16s and F-22s, and we worked to ensure that we had the best equipment for our men and women who serve.”
Thornton says there were two reasons why he was motivated to be an Air Force officer. “I wanted to fly ever since I went on an airplane ride when I was four,” he said. “I just thought that was the greatest thing. The other was the early 1980s during the Cold War. America was on the ropes, our morale was low and along comes this President (Ronald Reagan) who said that ‘we are an exceptional people, our way is better and we can win this.’ I really wanted to be part of that, so there was no choice for me other than to join the Air Force and be part of it.”
The attributes to be an effective general no doubt vary from one officer to another. Thornton lists five key traits. “The most important is to have a strong desire to serve your country and the people under your command,” he said. “The others include a keen intellect, curiosity, a desire to lead and being motivated to be the best at whatever it is you’re doing.”
Thornton has two master’s degrees and isn’t far from having two others (short by a thesis). The degrees are in aviation systems and national resource strategy. He’s received nine major awards, but the one that he’s most proud of came in 1989 when he was chosen Air Training Command’s Instructor Pilot of the Year. “Awards I’ve received all rate high, but I was chosen from an elite group as top instructor,” Thornton said. “That’s No. 1 and I’m humbled by it.”
Reflecting on his 30-year career, Thornton says his fondest memories are of “all the people [he’s] met.” He also recalled one particular situation that involved a flight over Iraq. “I was flying very, very low,” he said. “The mission was Operation Provide Comfort. I was passing over a flock of goats or sheep and the noise from my jet had scattered the flock. The man there just waved—he knew I was there to protect him from Saddam Hussein. It was a particularly proud moment for me, knowing I was really making a difference.”
Thornton also is acutely aware of what the most difficult situations were. “The toughest times were when we lost colleagues in flight-test accidents,” Thornton said. “Going to the home of a widow to deliver the news was heartbreaking. Knowing there were children who wouldn’t see their father again was sad. I delivered some of the eulogies of those men, and I’ll never forget their sacrifice and service.”
When Thornton became a general, he said he was surprised. “Twenty-nine were selected out of a group of 1,000,” said Thornton, who served a year as a White House fellow with the U.S. Trade Representative. “There are so many who are qualified and could have been in my place. I was humbled by the honor and cherished the opportunity to serve my country.”
Thornton has lived in 12 states and 10 countries. For all that travel, he still has fond memories of his roots. Thornton, whose mother (Kay Page) lives on Kathy Drive, last visited Bellingham during Memorial Day weekend. He was chosen as the keynote speaker for the town’s annual celebration, and he delivered a powerful message about Bellingham.
“It was great to be home,” he emphasized. “I waited 30 years to give that speech. I looked out and saw the high school band and thought how wonderful it was to see that kind of participation. When I went on to college, I was so prepared for classes in physics and languages because of the solid education I received in Bellingham. I emphasized how thankful I was to have had such dedicated teachers and coaches. In athletics, I learned so many real-life lessons. You learn to be competitive, you acquire self-esteem and you function with teamwork. Competitiveness should never be frowned upon.”
Thornton and his wife, Lisa, have three children—Kelsey, 27; Travis, 24; and Victoria, 17.
Last month, on Nov. 21, Thornton was honored for his service at a ceremony at the Museum of the Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB. His official retirement date: Dec. 31, 2014.
“I remember coming into the Air Force as a young lieutenant and reciting its motto of “fly, fight and win,’ ” he recalled. “It was at the height of the cold war. I went forward and became a test pilot. My goal was to be part of a team to develop the best Air Force in the world.”
Mission accomplished, General Thornton.