Most days as president of the University of Wyoming have their drama and challenges, said Dick McGinity. But his experiences piloting patrol planes – P-3 Orions – in Vietnam and elsewhere across the Pacific puts any day in the office in perspective.
Behind his desk in the president’s office is a framed photo of the plane he flew with a crew of 12 during three deployments in Vietnam. The P-3’s mission was complex: in Vietnam, it was to intercept North Vietnamese ships attempting to supply their troops in the south and to protect the aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin from torpedo boats.
“Aircraft carriers are the crown jewels of the Navy. Our job in the Gulf of Tonkin was to protect them,” is how McGinity put it. Outside of Vietnam, but still at the height of the Cold War, the P-3’s main mission was to find and track Soviet nuclear missile submarines, and destroy them in the event of war.
He talks of the acute need for constant awareness and precision, to avoid loss of the plane and the crew. “As a pilot, you can never be satisfied that you are good enough. You must always be trying to be better,” he said. And that need for total focus prepared him for several high-octane jobs, including his most recent as UW president. The focus and discipline required in wartime military flying exceeds most professional challenges because in peacetime jobs “the consequences of individual misjudgment or mistakes are rarely fatal.”
Flying loomed large in McGinity’s imagination from his very first memory – of his father, newly retired from the Air Force, taking him up in a plane on his fourth birthday. Only a few years later, at 8, he was on a beach in New Jersey when he was startled by the sight and sound of a very low-flying fighter jet that roared suddenly over a nearby sand dune. “He (the pilot) circled and came screaming back down the beach right along the water line – eye level – no more than 20 feet off the ground. I could see his red helmet and the rivets on the plane. F-86D,” recalled McGinity. He felt then and there, “I want to learn to fly.”
Although his older brother was flying helicopters in the Navy, McGinity was interested in larger multi-engine planes, like the B-29s that his father had flown in China, Burma, India and over Japan in World War II.
He went through college on a Navy ROTC scholarship and underwent training in the summers. He was commissioned at graduation and began flight training. Following carrier qualifications, he was assigned an airman’s dream job – piloting P-3s and prowling the coastline of Vietnam.
“We’d fly a recon mission around the coast of Vietnam looking for ships coming to supply the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese army. When we found one, other Navy ships off the coast would close in and check it out. Most of our flying was out over water … much of it in severe weather,” he said.
All pilots and crews in Vietnam had close calls, but especially those who were flying close air support for the infantry or attacking North Vietnamese infrastructure and supply lines. Of 10 close college friends (all Marines) who went through flight school at the same time, two were killed and “the rest of us all had heart-stopping experiences.” Of these 10, only he and one other “didn’t crash or bail out at least once,” McGinity explained. One bailed out of his burning F-4 and came down at the top of a tree in a jungle full of North Vietnamese infantry. “They saw him come down and he could hear them closing in, but a Marine helicopter had also seen him and arrived moments before the NVA did. The helicopter got close enough to the tree for him to grab onto a skid. He clung to it until the helo could put him down in a Marine rifle company under attack a few hundred yards away,” described McGinity.
P-3 operations in Vietnam were rarely as extreme as this. About 10,000 US aircraft were lost over the course of the Vietnam conflict, but only two were P-3s. No one in either P-3 crew survived.
McGinity lost one of his college roommates in an accident in flight school. “My best friend … I’ve never gotten over that,” he says.
McGinity came home from his military service to attend graduate school in Boston and earn MBA and DBA degrees. He worked in New York City for six years, returning to Boston in 1983 as a partner in a venture capital firm. By 1988, he had started his own consulting and private equity firm and was serving as board director for several private and public companies.
And then he discovered Wyoming.
He describes how seeing the Tetons after landing in Jackson in the summer of 1988 hit him like a ton of bricks: “I always thought everyone should make an effort to be rational and logical. But I got off the plane in Jackson and just lost it. After a couple of roundups and hunting trips, I was hopelessly addicted.”
He invested in a historic dude ranch north of Dubois and began spending more and more time in Fremont County, including a home in Crowheart. Soon his love of Wyoming brought him into public service on the Wyoming Business Council and eventually to teaching business ethics at the University of Wyoming.
McGinity says that his time flying in Vietnam has given him values and discipline that have carried over into his professional life.
“I draw on that experience in this job (as UW president), in which you cannot know as much as you need or would like to know,” he says, “but you keep pushing yourself. Focus and persistence — keeping your eye on the big picture, while dealing consistently with the smaller things.” Those are the lessons he brought with him from piloting a war plane 46 years ago.