Donna Hightower never expected any of the surprises she recently received from the Army and the Department of Defense.First was the presentation of the DoD Distinguished Civilian Service Award, the highest award given to a DoD civilian, during a ceremony Oct. 8 in the Pentagon. Brig. Gen. Bob Marion, program executive officer for aviation, first broke the news of the award to Hightower during a PEO Aviation Town Hall Sept. 1.On Nov. 20 Heidi Shyu, the Army's assistant secretary for acquisition, logistics and technology, praised Hightower's accomplishments and lauded her leadership among acquisition peers during a brown bag lunch at PEO Aviation.
Calling Hightower a "superstar," Shyu acknowledged her contributions that were critical in the fielding of airborne surveillance and weapons delivery capabilities across the Army and joint users.
Hightower, not one accustomed to the spotlight, said, "I was surprised but humbled that I could be considered for this award, much less receive the award. I work with a tremendous team of engineers, logisticians and business personnel that are far greater talented people who deserve this a lot more than I do."
Hightower first came to the world of unmanned aircraft systems on a dare. She began her career in 1988 with the Strategic Defense Command then with the Aviation and Missile Command working in the labs reverse engineering black boxes. "It was fun…but it kept me very disconnected from the end users," she said.Hightower honed her skills as a system and test engineer until 1995 when she noticed a requirement for a systems engineer in what was then called Tactical UAS. UAS was still in its infancy at the time, and Hightower thought it would be a great opportunity to contribute her expertise in something new and different. Her counterparts in the lab thought she didn't have a chance of being selected and dared her to apply for the job. She was interviewed and agreed to try the job for 30 days.
"The rest is history," Hightower said with a smile.
From there, Hightower blossomed to become an established leader, setting a precedence and preeminence in the field of unmanned aircraft operations. She chaperoned the Hunter UAS through a series of production and testing events leading to the first fielded Hunter system to the 15th Military Intelligence Battalion at Fort Hood, Texas. These exceptionally difficult years in the life of the Hunter program provided the foundation of refined requirements that would ultimately birth the robust fleet of UAS currently fielded and operated by the Army. Hightower has since been in the lead for every major evolution in Army UAS capability.In 2007, at the request of the Joint IED Defeat Organization and Task Force Observe Detect Identify and Neutralize, Hightower planned and executed a multiphase integration of UAS into the Army's Combat Aviation Brigades to support the counter IED mission. Working with the 25th Infantry Division, she led her team through the planning to create a model for integration of the Gray Eagle UAS into the brigades, building the case for the capability that would ultimately impact the future force structure of each Army division.The innovative plan used Hunter as a surrogate ahead of the actual fielding of the Gray Eagle, gaining two years of knowledge and experience to support senior leadership decision-making. It created the opportunity to develop tactics, techniques and procedures for an entirely new element of the CAB, a dramatic force multiplier, and demonstrated the power of organic UAS compared to task organized support."When I started with Hunter, no one really knew what a UAV was and what it could bring to the battlefield," Hightower said. "The manned world wanted no part of UAVs and saw them as a threat.It gives me tremendous pride in my team now that UASs are seen as force multipliers versus a hindrance or a threat. That's the biggest change I've seen -- the acceptance of unmanned platforms by the manned world."Hightower then coordinated and supervised the Army's first manned-unmanned teaming demonstration of UAS assets with Apache and Kiowa Warrior aircraft, establishing the "Find-Fix-Finish" construct. This single event was the catalyst to move UAS from a pure intelligence platform to an integral part of the maneuver force.Hightower was sought after to apply her expertise and innovation to establish numerous other efforts involving UAS, including the eventual weaponization of the Hunter UAS which led to the weaponization of Warrior A systems, three of which deployed in theater in October 2007. She then deployed to personally supervise efforts in Iraq knowing the tremendous importance of the Warrior A mission."I wanted to let the user know that I was willing to stand side-by-side with them and make the changes necessary to keep the system flying in real time. It allowed the user to put a face to a voice. It also gave me the opportunity of a lifetime to thank the people who allow me to have the freedom I so enjoy today," she said.Hightower deployed three times in theater, two in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and one in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.She never rested on her laurels however, and simultaneously focused her attention on the keystone of future UAS operations. Early on she identified the pressing need for open architectures and commonality among the systems being developed, understanding the issues and inefficiencies that would be realized in the future with continued use of proprietary systems.She worked diligently with industry partners to develop "open" system architectures and interoperability standards among platforms. The One System Ground Control Station was the genesis of this effort and the foundation from which future work would be based. With the development, production, and integration of the OSGCS, for the first time the Army possessed a GCS capable of controlling multiple unmanned aircraft platforms.Continuing forward, Hightower also worked with leadership in the development and integration efforts of other "universal" components."We had a proliferation of GCSs and data links that did not interface with each other nor with other systems, and it limited the user's ability to communicate resulting in inefficiencies that needed to be corrected," Hightower said. "Through a team effort, PM UAS pulled together a plan … that allowed the Army to eliminate multiple configurations to a single product that can be used universally."The outcome was the development and production of the Universal Ground Data Terminal, Universal Ground Control Station, and One System Remote Video Terminal.These extraordinary efforts forever changed Army acquisition strategies in the UAS community and have helped the Army realize efficiencies in UAS life cycle sustainment and supply chain management. More importantly "interoperability" has created synergistic effects between the services, industry partners and the warfighter."My passion for the job comes from my desire to please the end user," Hightower said. "My greatest compliment came from a young Soldier at an airport. He was getting ready to leave on his fourth deployment to Iraq. I was wearing a shirt with a UAS logo. The Soldier looked at me, shook my hand, and thanked me for the work we were doing. That was a very special moment in my life."Hightower continues to serve as the deputy product director for the UAS Modernization Product Directorate within the Program Executive Office for Aviation. Throughout her more than 31 years of DoD service, Hightower said she will always be thankful to her family for providing a strong support system and the freedom to do the things she loves. "I thank God for keeping me safe throughout my travels and for guiding me to make the right decisions and learn from my mistakes," she said.