The Watchman

As commander of Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center, Duane Deal guards the skies

5 min read

When somebody thinks the worst thing about his job is that he can't spend more time doing it, it's time to recalibrate the "job satisfaction" scale.

But that's the attitude of Duane Deal, a brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force and commander of the famous Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center. Buried under 600 meters of solid granite just outside Colorado Springs, Colo., Cheyenne is the headquarters of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD). Deal leads North America's first line of defense against threats that range from long-range missiles and hijacked airliners to rogue asteroids and falling space debris. An aerospace engineer by training and an avid pilot, he's taken part in more than a dozen investigations of rocket and aviation accidents, including the inquiry into the Columbia space shuttle disaster two years ago.

There's not a lot of downtime in a job like that. But, in fact, that's what Deal likes best about his work. "It's the real-world mission, the responsibility that lands on our backs, the knowledge that there can be consequences of everything we do," he says.

It's also a heavy burden. "Arguably the worst part of the job is that we cannot rest in what we do," he says. "Today's realities have dictated constant vigilance, and we'll give nothing less."

A "sixth-generation military brat," Deal was born at an Air Force base in Alabama but moved before he acquired any memories of the place; it would be the first of many moves during his childhood. His father helped pioneer the military use of computers in the 1950s and 1960s and later worked for several years on the Apollo program, managing NASA's computer center in Slidell, La., where Deal went to high school.

Deal's parents took him to air shows throughout his childhood, and he remembers watching live coverage of early Mercury space shots. In 1969, shortly before entering college, he stood on the Banana River causeway near Cape Canaveral, in Florida, to watch the launch of Apollo 11 on its way to the first manned moon landing. He decided that his life would follow that rocket--he wanted to go as high and as fast and as far as possible.

"Today's realities have dictated constant vigilance, and we'll give nothing less"

Now 51, Deal started off studying electrical engineering at Mississippi State University, in Starkville, but then shifted to aeronautical engineering as he got more deeply involved in designing and flying prize-winning model airplanes. With enough credits for an engineering degree, in his junior year he broadened his technical background by switching his major to physics. "I recall the effect a couple of professors had," he explains. "They were passionate and excited about physics, astronomy, and thermodynamics," and that infected him, too.

After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1965 and while finishing college in the Air Force's Reserve Officer's Training Corps, he decided to broaden his education still more by completing a master's degree in counseling and psychology. This unusual choice would later pay off immensely when Deal started working on accident investigations.

"I've taken part in about a dozen major rocket and aviation accident investigation boards," says Deal. It started when he served as a witness for an aircraft accident investigation board and later became a quality assurance officer for three jet systems. "I got tagged as someone who could dig to the root causes of aircraft crashes," he says. By far the most challenging was his role on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, impaneled immediately after the space shuttle disaster in February 2003. "I did a major portion of the interviews of the engineers and managers," he says, "and my counseling degree enabled me to get out of people things they didn't even realize they knew about the accident--and its causes."

After he left school, Deal's career was typical for a jet pilot. During his first decade of Air Force service, he accumulated over 2200 hours of flight time in high-performance aircraft such as the B-57 Canberra, the F-101 Voodoo, and the F-106 Delta Dart, and ultimately the Mach-3 SR-71 Blackbird. Eventually, he began taking higher command positions in technological support and operations, interspersed with educational sabbaticals at military management schools, at the RAND Corp., in Santa Monica, Calif., and at Harvard University and Dartmouth College.

Deal's duties continued to focus on the management of engineering. Among other things, he worked on defense satellite launches; managed the design and construction of buildings; oversaw the integration of the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System, a high-resolution airborne radar for use at high altitude; and improved the corrosion reduction program on the Minuteman Missile.

Following his promotion to brigadier general in mid-2001, he took command of the space-monitoring team in Colorado Springs, and in early 2004 he assumed command of the entire Cheyenne Mountain center, overseeing 240 operators drawn from the armed services of the United States and Canada. (After years of reading other people's copies of IEEE Spectrum, he recently rejoined IEEE.)

Deal spoke with me in his office inside the mountain. It looks like any ordinary executive office, except there are no windows, no impressive views. I'd noticed earlier that the military personnel there don't salute or wear formal dress uniforms. Deal himself was wearing a standard Air Force flight suit, and he walked the walk of an athlete. (He went to college on a baseball scholarship.)

When asked how much real engineering he does in his current job, at first he answered, "Very little." Growing thoughtful, he elaborated: "You're aware of the engineering miracle this complex is, but you're not designing anything--not doing hands-on work." But he did have input into the design of the North American forces' command and control facilities that were developed in the wake of 9/11. That activity found Deal drawing on his expertise in engineering, human factors, and operations.

As a military commander, he understandably spends a lot of time "being reported to" and attending status meetings. Beyond the typical management issues of personnel and budgets, he also spends a lot of time in the control centers, ready to advise or to exercise his authority to call up outside resources as needed. Data feed into Cheyenne Mountain from globally dispersed networks of radar, satellites, and sensors. "I try to pull one full command center duty shift a week," he says. Such shifts may involve monitoring foreign missile and space launches, assessing U.S. launches, monitoring chemical spills and bomb threats, or tracking unknown or potentially threatening aircraft.

If Deal has one piece of advice for young engineers, it's to "broaden yourself." Following that mantra has certainly made a difference in his career. Many of the college classmates with whom he stays in touch, and many of the people he works with now, are experts in their highly specialized fields, he notes. They've had satisfying careers, but he says he's grateful for his early choices that widened the educational foundation he laid for his professional development. By learning as much as you can about management systems engineering and operations beyond your technical specialty, he says, you'll be prepared to make "the greater contributions" that Deal feels jobs like his can make.

About the Author

Before becoming a writer and consultant, James Oberg worked for NASA mission control for 22 years. Based in Houston, he wrote about the Huygens probe for the Cassini mission to Saturn in the October 2004 issue of IEEE Spectrum.

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