When asked about the past week, American Airlines first officer and Air National Guard Colonel Carla Riner described it as “rewarding, enlightening, exciting and heartwarming.” She’s spent it on military leave serving as Deputy Director of Mobility Forces supporting Operations Allies Refuge and Allies Welcome at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL).
In her role, Col. Riner manages all airlift assets — including both military aircraft and airliners in the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) — used to transport thousands of Afghanistan evacuees through PHL to safe harbors across the U.S. Working closely with airport, airline, government and military partners, her team coordinates flight routing, passenger manifests and other logistics critical to the ongoing movement of evacuees through PHL.
“It is a truly unique and fulfilling opportunity to serve in our nation’s effort to care for and protect those who fought for U.S. interests in Afghanistan over the last 20 years,” Col. Riner said. “From my first mission over Afghanistan supporting Operation Anaconda as a C-130 pilot with the 167th Airlift Wing to the important work we’ve been tasked with today, the Air National Guard has provided me the chance of a lifetime to serve my country and fulfill my dreams.”
A career that could span three lifetimes
When Carla joined American as a flight attendant in 1991, she never imagined a life on the flight deck. “I had no intention of flying for an airline or the military, but I got entranced by the idea of becoming a pilot — so I started working on my private pilot license in between trips for work.”
She recalled fondly that her fellow flight attendants would often tease her for studying on layovers between flights. But when a first officer working with her overheard, he suggested joining the Air National Guard as a way to pay for flight school. Intrigued, she started asking questions — and before long, Carla landed a position as the second female pilot for the 167th Airlift Wing.
“When I returned from flight training with the Air National Guard, it made for some really fun conversations with other crew members and our customers to work as both a C-130 pilot and a flight attendant.”
Carla applied and was hired to be a pilot for American in Miami flying the Boeing 727 in January 2001. But just nine months later, following terrorist attacks on 9/11, her unit was activated and deployed to support the U.S. entrance into Afghanistan and again in 2003 to support Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Following deployment, Carla returned home to find her and countless other pilots on furlough as the airline industry struggled to recover. She made the most of her time — balancing her exemplary service in the Air National Guard with aspirations of a career at a federal government agency.
Carla received her Juris Doctorate in 2008 and accepted a role with the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where she climbed the ranks to become Deputy Chief Operating Officer. During that time, Carla was also promoted to Colonel and held progressive posts as 167th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Commander and 130th Maintenance Group Commander. It was only after a 12-year break that she returned from furlough and joined the flight line as a first officer on the Airbus A320 in Miami.
Today, Carla serves in dual roles as a PHL-based first officer on the Boeing 787 and as Wing Commander for the 166th Airlift Wing in New Castle, Delaware, overseeing more than 1,100 Air National Guard members that provide tactical airlift support using C-130 aircraft.