From Wilkes Colonel to Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, Deirdre Gurry ’99 Has Seen The World
By Kelly Clisham MFA ’16
Growing up in the small town of Bushkill, Pa., Deirdre Gurry ’99 never imagined she’d become a pilot. “My vision of my future was very limited. I had no idea as a kid what I would be doing with my life,” she says. Today, she has a much higher world view. Gurry is not only a pilot, but a Lieutenant Colonel, squadron commander, teacher and mentor to the next generation of aviators in the United States Air Force.
In high school at Notre Dame of East Stroudsburg, Gurry thought she might want to teach. When she told her guidance counselor that she wanted to teach college students, he laughed and replied, “You have to learn something first.”
Gurry took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, or ASVAB, scoring in the 99th percentile on the mechanical section of the test. She decided to pursue an ROTC scholarship to help cover college costs. When she completed the scholarship application, she says, “It’s the first time I ever saw a list of majors.” Encouraged by her high ASVAB score and her fondness for tinkering in the garage with her dad, Gurry checked off mechanical engineering.
Visiting Wilkes for the ROTC scholarship interview, Gurry discovered the campus would be an ideal place to spend the next four years. It was close to home, offered a major in mechanical engineering and provided room and board as part of the Air Force ROTC scholarship.
“My engineering experience at Wilkes was incredible,” she says. “I loved that we had small classes. It was more of a small-group setting, which really helps in engineering.” Gurry took advantage of hands-on experience in the machine shop, learning how machines work and figuring out how to build things.
Outside of class, Gurry occasionally rode into sporting events on horseback as the Wilkes Colonel, though she spent most of her time with the AFROTC detachment. “I enjoyed the program. I enjoyed the structure. I worked well in that environment. I showed up with enthusiasm.” Her enthusiasm led to a spot in the pilot training program at Mississippi’s Columbus Air Force Base, then an invite to stay on as an instructor. “I ended up with my dream career of teaching college kids,” Gurry laughs. “I’m one of the luckiest people in the world.”
Luck may play a part, but Gurry demonstrates serious skill in the air. She pilots the C-17 Globemaster III, a large military cargo plane, as well as the T-37 and T-6, two-person aircraft which are used to teach new pilots. Gurry’s service has taken her to all seven continents. As a cargo pilot, she’s been deployed to Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom, transporting servicemen and supplies in and out of combat zones. She also enjoyed time in Ferrara, Italy, serving as an aircraft liaison to NATO, practicing military movements on paper and planning cargo movements. It was “essentially wargaming,” says Gurry.
Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in October 2014, she took command of the 8th Flying Training Squadron at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma in June 2017, the first woman to do so. As squadron commander, Gurry oversees 68 pilots and 110 student pilots annually. She not only teaches pilots in training, but mentors those across the base. “I really enjoy mentoring people and seeing people grow and meet their potential.”
Gurry’s mentoring extends to the Supergirls, a group for female pilots which she helped to found. As one of only 713 women out of 12,600 pilots in the Air Force, she’s committed to making sure her colleagues have a voice and the support they need.
Though her days are anything but typical, Gurry tries to fly every day with the students. As a T-6 instructor, she gives her students a solid foundation — from take-off and landing to aerobatics formation fundamentals — that will translate to every aircraft. She enjoys performing aerobatics while flying in formation. “I like to fly upside-down. It’s my favorite thing.”
Gurry is hard-pressed to name any specific challenges she’s faced during her Air Force career. Though she has not received every assignment she’s hoped for, she never let it slow her down. “When given a project, whether I like the project or not, I dive into it and own it and make it the best that I could make it. I show up every day with pride and enthusiasm.”
Longtime friend and current Wilkes associate professor of pharmacy practice Dan Longyhore saw that same spirit in Gurry, first when they were high school and then college classmates. “She takes on absolutely anything and excels at it,” says Longyhore.
Longyhore recalls time spent with Gurry in the roller hockey club at Wilkes. When other players were content to take it easy, Gurry was always focused. “She was motivated and determined and positive. She was like the coach.” The lieutenant colonel’s drive hasn’t changed from her days in the Marts Gym. “There’s no surprise in my mind that she’s where she’s at today,” says Longyhore.
Gurry hasn’t thought much about life after the Air Force. “I feel that when I get out of the military, I get to start a whole new life and I don’t know where to go with it.” She may pursue a master’s degree in architecture to satisfy an interest in art. She may travel around to air shows, promoting STEM education by showing off her plane and getting kids excited about the mechanics behind it. “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up,” she says. Whatever she decides, no doubt Gurry will make a smooth landing.
Lt. Col. Deirdre Gurry, Enid, Okla.
Bachelor of Science, Mechanical Engineering, Wilkes University
Master of Business Administration, Trident University International
Master of Military Operational Art and Science, Air University, Air Command and Staff College
Career: One of an elite group of women pilots in the U.S. Air Force. First female commander of the 8th Flying Training Squadron at Vance Air Force Base.
Noteworthy: Gurry’s call sign — the nickname pilots use to refer to each other — is “Nuke.” She’s tight-lipped about its origins, but says, “Everybody earns their call sign. It’s a rite of passage.”