Headquartered in Dallas but launched in Texarkana in 1964, TAC Air runs 16 aviation ground-service companies, including three in Arkansas — Fort Smith, Texarkana and Little Rock.
Each fixed base operation (FBO) offers customized services such as ground handling, aircraft fueling, hangar space, aircraft maintenance, cargo handling and de-icing. For an industry that is highly dominated by men, TAC Air stands out for going against the grain.
SUS is one of the largest general aviation-only airports in the Midwest. Of Lang’s promotion, TAC Air COO Joe Gibney said, “The leadership and success Lang showed during her time as GM of TAC Air Fort Smith has positioned her to be an ideal leader in taking over at TAC Air SUS.”
The company has a history of hiring and promoting women to leadership roles, dating back to its inception in 1964 when it was known as the Truman Arnold Companies. Early this year, TAC Air moved General Manager Christina Lang from her Fort Smith position to a larger role as general manager of the Spirit of St. Louis Airport (SUS) in Chesterfield, Mo.
TAC promoted Allison Graham to lead its FBO in Fort Smith as general manager. A 31-year veteran of the company, Graham had previously served as ramp hostess, customer service representative, aircraft maintenance administrator, and most recently, as the customer service manager, a position she held for the last 22 years.
“Graham worked her way up, successfully mastering several roles within the FBO, gaining knowledge, industry and internal company experience, always showing enthusiasm and eagerness to learn, making her an ideal leader to take the reins after Lang,” Gibney added.
These elevated positions for women come more naturally nowadays, thanks to long-time employee Carol McNally, who has been with TAC Air since it started as a single-location operation more than 30 years ago. As the company grew to 16 FBOs, McNally has helped set up and provide training for each location. Two years ago, she stepped out of the Fort Smith GM role to focus on corporate level responsibilities, including running the entire office system and administration for all the FBOs.
Making her way to a leadership role in this 700-employee operation has come with its fair share of challenges. Early on, not just in aviation but across the majority of industries, the aspect of women in management, of course, was very different from what we see now.
“It’s become much easier,” McNally told Arkansas Money and Politics, explaining that her response to the obvious challenges was perseverance. “If somebody was skeptical of my ability, I just did what I knew needed to be done, and in almost every instance, it worked itself out. You do have to prove yourself a little bit more and work a little bit harder.”
In doing so, McNally helped set the stage for women in aviation. Now, it’s becoming less uncommon. Several other FBOs in recent years have put women in general manager positions. Through hard work, McNally has helped further women in aviation careers.
Fort Smith’s new GM credited McNally for paving the way.
“Carol working a little bit harder made my job a lot easier because people in Fort Smith have already seen a woman in the general manager role,” Graham noted. “So, I think maybe they don’t question it as much as if a man had been in this position for 40 years like Carol was. It’s probably easier for me than it was her back in the day. People are more accepting, and the world is just changing.”
Graham not only believes the industry has become more accepting of women in managerial roles, but that women, themselves, have also become more accepting of the idea.
“I think we have stronger women out there, too,” she noted. Women like McNally, Graham and Lang have given other women a path to follow. It’s become easier for them to see themselves going after and landing higher level positions.
McNally and Graham agree that aviation work can be both challenging and thrilling. According to McNally, “It gets in your blood, and you just never want to leave it.” To her, aviation is the front door to the city. The most exciting things that happen in town, many times, begin at the airport. Important business executives and famous people either have their own planes or they charter, and FBO employees are the first to welcome them.
The Fort Smith location also handles general aviation and military planes. “If you stand out on a ramp and you have an F18 taking off, you just feel that shake in your belly, and nothing else feels like that,” McNally said.
Graham feels the same way. She came to the business as a teenager, fresh out of high school, not knowing anything about aviation. But now she can’t imagine doing anything else.
“It’s one of those things that just gets you,” she said. “The success both in my part and in Carol’s part is the people you have around you and the team you build. No one person can do it. It’s fun but it’s tough.”
FBO work is a 24/7 job. Customers are promised full access to their planes, day and night. Additionally, the military moves its planes around the clock. At one point, TAC Air was bringing 2,000 troops in every two weeks and sending them back out after two weeks with a very small staff. Employees have to be prepared to get to the airport on a moment’s notice.
Military planes are a large part of TAC Air’s business. Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith is adjacent to the Fort Smith airport, with which it shares runways. Ebbing also is home to the U.S. Air Force F-35 Lighting II training center, serving foreign military sales participants. Recently, it also became the new home for the Republic of Singapore’s F-16 Fighting Falcon training unit.
Tad Perryman, vice president of marketing for TAC Air, told AMP that the military base in Fort Smith has always been a really big part of TAC’s business. One of his favorite stories about McNally happens to be about this important side of their services.
“Carol’s stature — I don’t know how tall she really is, but she is not a very large woman,” Perryman shared. “She’s a very petite go-getter. She’s always been out on the ramps throwing the bags. One day, she unloaded something like 2,000 rucksacks off of buses into an airplane for all the military guys. Several men were down below handing her bags, and she was the one on the top, throwing them in. She is hands-on. You might be a 250-pound guy; you might be a linebacker. But you’ve got to move over because Carol is coming, and she will take control.”
Perryman said that McNally has always led by example, whether that was fueling aircraft or cleaning out lavatories, “which is probably the most disgusting thing you could ever imagine.” She knew what needed to be done and would step up and take care of it, never asking someone to do something she wouldn’t do herself.
As Graham fills the GM role McNally once held, that hands-on approach to leadership will continue. Graham shares the same philosophy. She’s been known to come out and park airplanes and do some wing walking when it’s needed. And when she’s in her office, she remains accessible as well.
“The people I work with have known me for years, so they know they can come to me with anything. They know that I’ll be out there with them when things get tough; I’ll be out right beside them.”
Pictured at top: Allison Graham and Carol McNally on the tarmac at Fort Smith.