'I Don't Know How Professors Teach Without Fighter-Pilot Experience'

Missy Cummings discusses her first job, her experience as one of the first female fighter pilots, and her time as a Duke professor.

A profile photograph of Missy Cummings
Missy Cummings (Chip Somodevilla / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic)

Missy Cummings’s father was in the Navy, but he urged her to go into the Air Force because he thought it was a better environment for women. Still, she entered the Navy, becoming one of the service’s first female fighter pilots. While her mother, a teacher, wasn’t against the idea, she was glad when Cummings finished serving and became a professor and the director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke University.

Cummings’s experience in the military heavily influenced her research interests. Once she realized how frequently pilot error was causing fatal accidents among her colleagues, she began asking questions: “Why are people crashing? Isn’t there something we can do about it?” That curiosity propelled her to focus on automation.

Recently, I spoke with Cummings about her first job writing congratulatory letters on behalf of Tennessee Rep. Donald Sundquist, a Republican. We also discussed the transition she made from being a fighter pilot to a professor, and how young people can follow their passions while still developing technological skills.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Lolade Fadulu: I know you were one of the first female fighter pilots. How does one go about becoming a fighter pilot?

Missy Cummings: I went to the U.S. Naval Academy for college. When you’re there, you find out that you can be a fighter pilot. And the year was 1988, right after Top Gun had come out, so who wouldn’t want to be a fighter pilot?

Fadulu: Did you have any jobs in high school?

Cummings: I interned for my congressman. I was his goodwill letter writer. So I would write letters to all the constituents. It was my job to go through all the papers of all the local districts, and find out who recently graduated, what sports teams won. I would write letters to everyone who had done something nice in the district. To this day I am still, really, a good congratulatory letter writer.

Fadulu: Why did you intern for your congressman?

Cummings: I knew that if I wanted to go to the Naval Academy, I needed a congressional nomination. And so this was a good way to get that congressional nomination.

Fadulu: So you knew early on that you wanted to go into the Navy. What got you so interested in getting on that trajectory?

Cummings: My dad wanted me to go in the Air Force. And I applied to both academies, and I had nominations to both academies. And he wanted me to go to the Air Force because he thought the Air Force was better for women. It turns out he’s probably right.

Fadulu: What makes you say that?

Cummings: I think for women in the Navy, particularly flying fighters, it was a much harder transition for the Navy than it was for the Air Force. In the Navy, people go out to sea, so there’s much more of an all-male bastion, whereas the Air Force is more like an office environment. They’re a newer service; they’re much younger than the other services. And so I think they had less of the tradition to fall back on, they had less of an all-male culture. Women had been part of the Air Force almost from the very beginning, so I think it was just the years of tradition that I was fighting against.

Fadulu: I know that your internship for your congressman helped you in terms of getting the nomination letter, but was there anything from your experience interning that helped you when you were in the Navy, or when you were a fighter pilot?

Cummings: (Laughs.) The congratulatory-letter-writing skill doesn’t really translate well in the fighter-pilot world.

Fadulu: What was it like to transition from being a fighter pilot to being a professor?

Cummings: I had to unlearn a lot because motivating students is not the same as motivating military people. You can’t really order them around. If you’re an officer in the military and you tell somebody to do something, they have to do it. When you’re in academia it’s consensus building.

Fadulu: Did you feel like your military experience prepared you for the classroom in any way?

Cummings: Absolutely, especially as a research professor at a demanding institution like MIT, where I was a professor for my first 10 years. I don’t know how people do it without having been a fighter pilot first. It’s kind of a dog-eat-dog world.

Fadulu: What do you mean by that?

Cummings: It’s very hypercompetitive, it’s very back-stabbing. In fact, in the fighter-pilot world, people are just jerks to your face. In academia, people are jerks behind your back. They’ll stab you in the back but be nice to your face. It was a little harder to negotiate the academic world. When people are jerks to your face, at least you know where they’re coming from, and you know to avoid them. People who are backstabbing you, you don’t know to avoid them. I’d prefer the person who’s a jerk to my face.

Fadulu: One of your research interests is how humans interact with automation. How did you get interested in automation?

Cummings: When I flew F-18s, one person a month died, who I knew, flying on a plane. When you see that kind of outcome, and it was always pilot error, it really motivated me to do something about it. Why are we designing these planes this way? Why are people crashing? Isn’t there something we can do about it?

Fadulu: I know there’s a lot of fear surrounding automation and this idea that robots and computers will take over jobs and people won’t be able to take care of themselves. What do you think about that fear, especially when it could mean that automation could save lives?

Cummings: I am certainly less of a pessimist about this because I do research in this field. It can replace some jobs, but every time automation comes in and replaces one job or a group of jobs, it will create jobs in other places. For example, if we start automating trains, and we take engineers out of a train, we then create jobs for dispatchers, people who have to supervise the fleets of trains. It’s not always a one-to-one change. But it’s not a complete net loss.

For every robotic car that we build, we’re going to have to train entirely new types of mechanics. I actually think that in terms of robots, we’re going to be at a critical juncture in a few years. We already are because we don’t have enough people to fix all the robots that we’re making. We also don’t really have a good idea about what new jobs get created, when, for example, you start new delivery networks of drones. So what new businesses, what new innovations will that spur? I think humans are very resilient and they’ll create new jobs.

Fadulu: What do you think this means for young people right now?

Cummings: I just came back from Silicon Valley at a conference of roboticists, and across the board, the problem is, we’re not training enough people with all sorts of computer skills. We really need to significantly increase the output of people with all levels of computer skills and programming skills. I would say to young people today, “Get into some kind of IT. Get into some kind of computer science, get into some kind of multimedia, because computer-related activities are a huge growth sector right now.”

Fadulu: What if you’re a young person who’s not interested in that?

Cummings: I do think you need to love what you do. If you really love counting on an abacus, it’s probably not going to be a good job. You need to find something else to do. I’m not saying that’s all that you should do, but even artists, for example, are finding out that technology can augment their work in many different ways. I’m a big fan of combining art and technology. But I do think that the humanities need to figure out how to update their curricula to reflect the need to incorporate tech at least in some way, shape, or form.