Date: Oct 15, 2019 Author: Michael Keller Source: Forbes (
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Anxiety gripped the 19-year-old Air Force Academy cadet, and she wasn't sure if her mind would allow her to exit. The jumpmaster pointed to her and yelled, "Go!" But Gibbens couldn't hear. He pointed again. A second later, she thrust herself into the blue Colorado sky.
"I felt free," Gibbens, now 37, recalled of her first parachute jump in 2001. "I felt unencumbered."
The experience would stick with her and prove useful not only during Gibbens' successful Air Force career, but also when she would later start Trumbull Unmanned, a growing Houston-based company that flies drones--or, as the Military likes to call them, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)--to collect data for businesses.
"Going through that as a student changed me in many ways," Gibbens said about her time in the academy. "Certainly, I learned about facing fear, but also about paying attention to detail and taking calculated risks."
"With parachuting as with anything else," she continued, "you can only prepare for so long before you just have to jump."
From an early age, Gibbens knew she wanted to give herself over to a greater calling. She wanted to serve. And she was fascinated by aviation. Both her grandfathers had served in the Army Air Corps, the precursor to the Air Force, in World War II. Her father had worked for the Federal Aviation Administration in air traffic control.
She knew she wanted to study medicine or engineering in college, and she looked at several schools when the time came to apply. But her love of science and aviation-- along with a desire to serve--set her on a search for something specific. When the acceptance letter from the U.S. Air Force Academy arrived, her decision was a no-brainer.
Gibbens dove into a challenging academic environment at the academy and learned how to fly aircraft. She jumped from planes 495 times and eventually became an academy jumpmaster herself, encouraging other cadet skydivers to leap into the roar of the wind just like she had.
2001: Gibbens poses in a flight suit before her first lesson in an aircraft simulator.
After graduating in 2004 with a degree in civil engineering, Gibbens entered Active Duty as a second lieutenant and engineering acquisitions officer, a job that ensures the Air Force has the equipment it needs to complete its missions. She took up her post at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City and quickly gained leadership roles, becoming the program manager of a 10-person team and a $250 million portfolio that included the AGM-129A nuclear-tipped Advanced Cruise Missile. It was her first professional experience with an unmanned system.
She married an F-16 pilot and former academy parachuting teammate in 2005, and the newlyweds had a boy the year after that, the first of two children. At work, more promotions came, and by the end of her five-year commitment, she had earned the rank of captain and been made a wing executive officer, a high-level position that signaled she was starting her assent into the Service's upper ranks.
The family moved to Ogden, Utah. She was set to take on a new role in the Service while her husband, Jeffrey, would begin flying fighters out of nearby Hill Air Force Base. But then her life unexpectedly changed course.
A wrist and ankle injury from her parachuting days forced Gibbens to be permanently medically disqualified from the Air Force Reserve when her active-duty commitment ended in 2009, she said. Gibbens had risen to become an acquisitions program manager responsible for elements of the service's nuclear weapons programs. The "trajectory change," as Gibbens would call it, led her to take a year off from work to think about her future and spend time with her son. Her daughter would arrive two years later.
"Your career will take unexpected turns at unexpected times," she said. "You can't control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond. I realized you can serve your country in lots of different capacities."
She went through the Air Force's Transition Assistance Program and found help on the outside.
"Veteran service organizations want to support you, and so do many individuals, but you need to tell them how they can help," she said.
She also started to realize the benefits veterans could bring to the commercial sector. Too often, though, veterans are overlooked. It's a major blind spot, she said.
"Veterans typically have qualities and traits that are difficult to teach: discipline, integrity, loyalty, being team players," she said. "They are often motivated by things other than money, and trust matters to them. Who wouldn't want to hire someone like that?"
After her year off, she joined the private sector while still living in Ogden, taking a position as a consultant to the Air Force. From 2010 to 2013, she helped supply and maintain aircraft like the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a large remotely piloted UAV used for surveillance and relaying communications.
During that same period, she began doctoral studies in industrial engineering and management. In school, she worked on a project to use UAVs to remotely detect the hydrocarbons that make up petroleum and natural gas.
The pieces started coming together in her head: Oil and gas companies could use UAVs to make operations safer, more efficient and less taxing on the environment. She had the expertise to push their adoption in an industry not particularly known for sustainability.
But the idea of starting her own business was daunting. Though she had earned an MBA in 2009, entrepreneurship would require her to take a leap of faith and trust in herself. She had prepared for years and, like the lesson she had learned during her first time parachuting, it was time to face her fear and take the risk. It was time to jump.
In 2013, Gibbens and her husband launched Trumbull Unmanned to help the oil and gas industry use UAVs for inspections, operations and planning. Trumbull does it by using high-end drones to collect data that is then analyzed and turned into insights for customers.
The opportunity is huge. Electric multirotor or fixed-wing UAVs can replace gas-burning crewed aircraft and ground-based inspections while keeping workers out of unsafe areas, such as the top of a smokestack or deep in the wilderness.
When equipped with powerful sensors like cameras, lidar and molecular detection tools, they can help create rich datasets of facilities and equipment that companies can use to digitize physical operations and improve efficiency.
"I want to use this technology to make operations better, safer, faster, cheaper and more environmentally friendly," she said. "I see a lot of potential to make change in the oil and gas industry by working from the inside."
The company now employs 20 full- and part-time employees. All but two are veterans, and they hail from every branch of the Armed Forces.
With a customer list that includes the biggest names in the oil and gas industry and various government entities, Gibbens said she expects the business to grow substantially. She hopes to bring in $25 million in revenues next year, and $50 million to $100 million over three years.
Gibbens sits at a desk shaped to look like an aircraft wing from a bygone era. She still gets excited whenever she hears F-16s throttling up for takeoff and heads to an adjacent hangar to get a glimpse.
With an undying passion for flight--and the discipline, grit and drive she honed as a cadet and officer--Gibbens believes she can use those qualities to make positive change in the world.
"The threats society faces are getting stronger," she said. "We have to be a force for good. We have to be a source of light. The world needs that."