Oklahoman soared in U.S. Navy career

  • Published
  • By Mike W. Ray
  • Tinker Public Affairs
A native Oklahoman soared to the highest levels of the United States Navy during a 32-year career -- during which he moved 19 times -- and is now a cattle rancher.

Douglas L. McClain, a 1975 graduate of Putnam City High School in Oklahoma City, started flight school in 1980 and was a Lieutenant (junior grade) when he received his Navy Wings of Gold in 1981.
He served in the prestigious Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron for three years (1987-90).

He was promoted to captain in 1998, and spent two years at the Pentagon; he reported for duty in May 2001 as the chief of Policy for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Captain McClain was at work on Sept. 11, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 77, hijacked by terrorists, plowed into the west side of the Pentagon. "I was with [Defense] Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld that day. It's a day I don't ever want to repeat. It was a profoundly life-changing experience."

Subsequently Captain McClain assisted in the planning and initial strike operations of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

He was selected for Flag rank in 2003 and reported to the commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, serving as the deputy chief of Staff for Operations, Plans and Policy.

He was elevated to rear admiral in 2007, and retired last fall. At the time, Admiral McClain was director of Global Operations, U.S. Strategic Command. In that role he was the principal adviser to the Commander, USSTRATCOM, on all operational matters, providing strategic guidance to planning and execution of U.S. Strategic Command's Global Missions, including nuclear operations.

One of his greatest accomplishments was the planning and execution of the first-ever shootdown of an errant satellite in 2008, which was the subject of a feature on the Military Channel.

Today the 55-year-old former naval commander and his wife, Doni, raise beef cattle on the "Rockin' HD" ranch outside Purcell ("not so by accident" in McClain County).
The admiral's father was an Air Force pilot who retired after a 47-year career during which he flew in World War II, the Berlin Airlift, the Korean Conflict, and in the Vietnam War.

The admiral wanted to be an Air Force pilot, too, but when he took his Air Force Academy flight physical he was rejected because of a knee injury sustained in high-school football. "So I went to the University of Colorado, where I played football," helping the Buffaloes capture a berth in the 1977 Orange Bowl, and joined the Navy ROTC. Then he transferred to the University of Oklahoma, graduating in 1979 with a bachelor of business administration degree and a naval commission earned through the OU Naval Reserve Officer Training Program.

"Obviously the Navy took this reject from the USAF, and I never looked back," he said. The admiral spent all but three years of his career flying tactical jet aircraft and has a combined 11 years at sea, flying operationally off aircraft carriers.

He attended the Naval War College, graduating in 1993 with a Master's of Science degree in National Security and Strategic Studies. He was awarded the President's Honor Graduate award as the top graduate.

Admiral McClain received numerous other awards, too, including two Defense Superior Service Medals, four Legend of Merit Medals, the Meritorious Service Medal, two Joint Commendation Medals, three Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, and two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, as well as a host of Air Medals, campaign ribbons and other awards. He also was honored as the Tailhooker of the Year in 1984, Landing Signals Officer of the Year in 1985, and Instructor Pilot of the Year in 1986.

Risk-taking was routine for Oklahoma admiral

Retired Rear Admiral Douglas L. McClain routinely performed precise, perilous maneuvers during his 32 years in the United States Navy.

The Oklahoma City native flew A-6 Intruders and F/A-18 Hornets throughout his career, which included a three-year stint with the Blue Angels aerobatic team and hundreds of landings on aircraft carriers.

Admiral McClain was with the Blue Angels for three years, the maximum length of an assignment with the elite Flight Demonstration Squadron.

The closest "set" in a Blue Angels formation is the "Diamond 360," when the number 3 pilot (left wing) of the four-plane diamond is separated by only 15-18 inches of air while flying at 400 mph, the admiral related. Usually their aircraft are twice as far apart -- 36 inches -- "but in the Diamond 360 maneuver, the #3 jet has the honor of getting pretty close," he added.

"Planning, practice and discipline" are critical to putting on 150+ demonstrations each season, he said; so is "trust in each other." For that reason, "We don't consider any maneuver as dangerous or risky. If we did, we couldn't put on the demonstration in front of millions of Americans and keep everyone safe."

For more than 66 years, the Blue Angels "have shown the American people what their tax dollars are paying for, and the maneuvers are really just refinements of basic maneuvers taught to every naval aviator."

Admiral McClain (whose call sign was "Hound Dog") logged more than 6,500 hours in carrier jet aircraft and recorded 1,507 landings on a dozen aircraft carriers, including more than 500 nighttime landings. Among those were missions flown in Intruders and Hornets from the decks of aircraft carriers operating in the North Arabian Gulf in support of Operation Desert Storm, Operation Southern Watch, Operation Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, as well as defeating the Russians in the Cold War while forward-deployed.
"Landing a 45,000-pound jet on a carrier is significant in that the pilot has only 60 feet in which to land in order to catch an arresting wire," he said. "We also had to be plus- or minus- 2 feet left or right of centerline in order to land." The carrier's landing area is around 600 feet total length, "but landing so as to pick up an arresting wire is where the precision comes in."

Landing in the dark is "infinitely harder" than landing in the daytime, he said. "At night you have no spatial orientation and have to trust instruments into three-quarter of a mile, and then it gets harder flying what we call the glideslope using a device called a Fresnel Lens (a/k/a 'meatball')." Every carrier aviator "has the challenge of coming back aboard the carrier after he leaves the combat zone, and it is always in the back of his mind," Admiral McClain said.

Discipline was a hallmark of the admiral's time as commander of the Rough Raiders of Strike Fighter Squadron 125. Under his leadership, VFA-125 surpassed the 80,000-, 90,000- and 100,000-hour accident free flying mark - a first for any tactical jet squadron in the history of the U.S. Navy.

His squadron was comprised of 60 F/A-18 Hornet aircraft and 1,000 Sailors and Marines. "We flew about 14,000 hours a year," the admiral recalled. "When you're training new, inexperienced pilots, mishaps are generally expected," he said. "So we focused on operational excellence, which leads to a robust safety program."