As commander of Sector North Bend in Oregon, Capt. Breanna “Bree” Knutson is one of two women currently running a Coast Guard air station. She’s also the first to be doing it with an all-female senior command.
Knutson’s executive officer, operations officer, and senior enlisted advisor are all women. That’s an impressive concentration of talent given that women account for just over 12% (137) of the Coast Guard’s pilots, and 2% of aviation enlisted personnel. It’s also a sign that the service’s policies to promote and retain women are having an impact.
What's that like on the ground? To find out, MyCG caught up with Knutson and her team: Cmdr. Maegan Schwartz (deputy), Cmdr. Tamara Whalen (operations), and Master Chief Petty Officer Nicole Steele (enlisted). Together, the group oversees some 450 members posted at the North Bend air station and six boat stations along 220 miles of Oregon coast. They also manage sector operations – primarily search and rescue (SAR) – in an environment known for its extreme weather and unforgiving terrain. On top of that, all three senior officers fly MH-65 helicopter missions at least once a week – and everyone stands watch.
“I think it’s awesome!” Knutson says of her wardroom, though she notes its make-up wasn’t by design. Schwartz, her executive officer, for example, replaced a male officer whose assignment ended a year after Knutson took over in June 2021.
“The thing is, we’re here together by pure happenstance,” Knutson added, “But we all have very similar philosophies and ways we think things should be done. Where we don’t agree, we’re able to have those conversations and work it out.”
Building a team
That’s translated into a very collaborative management style.
Steele, a cutterman, remembers being stunned when Knutson reached out for input while writing her command philosophy. “She said, ‘this is my philosophy, but this is OUR command, so I want you to believe in it,’” Steele said. “I was impressed before I even met her.”
Knutson isn’t alone in this practice, but she saw it as a good way of getting the buy-in to make things work. “This is also why I had the whole command sign it at the bottom,” she said, “to represent to the entire unit that we are a command team and are on the same page.”
Knutson’s philosophy emphasizes the critical service goals of safe mission execution, optimizing assets, and Semper Paratus. But it also reflects her accessible style and the lessons she’s learned over an impressive 23-year career. That includes a reminder that “honest mistakes are part of growth and the learning process.” As a new cadet fresh from her first deployment afloat, Knutson said, she almost didn’t apply to flight school because she feared she wasn’t good enough.
“I think my own self confidence was my biggest challenge,” she said. “There were times I’d think that seems really hard and I don’t know if I can do it.”
But Knutson did do it and was assigned to Air Station North Bend after graduating from flight school in 2002. Except for her and another new female pilot, the base was all men at the time. “The spouses club would invite us to do stuff,” she said. “People were trying, but we kind of had to figure it out on our own.”
Knutson continued to look to her supervisors for support, but it wasn’t until her third assignment that she found women to model herself after in Capt. Laura Thompson and Rear Adm. Donna Cottrell, now both retired. “Those incredible women became my mentors, telling me, here’s what you need to do next,” Knutson said.
Their guidance and Knutson’s hard work would see her through a series of challenging assignments including conducting and directing SAR missions at multiple air stations, flying rotary wing intercept missions in Washington, D.C., and conducting counter drug operations with the Coast Guard’s Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) in Jacksonville, Florida. She also held high visibility staff jobs at the Department of Homeland Security and, prior to her current role, as the service’s Congressional Liaison to the House of Representatives. “If you want to be anything beyond a line pilot, it’s imperative that you go to different places and learn the different missions,” she said.
Even though Knutson thought she might be too junior for a command position in 2020, she went for it. “In my mind it was part of the natural next step to try for command,” she said. “So, I put my name in, and found out right before the holidays. It was a very awesome Christmas gift.”
Eager to help
Knutson has happily paid it forward by helping junior members in the Coast Guard. She’s been mentoring Schwartz since the two of them worked together at HITRON 10 years ago, and is equally supportive of Whalen and Steele, who have never worked for a woman.
“Not in my 20-year career,” Whalen said. “Capt. Knutson is an amazing professional just like my previous supervisors. But it’s nice to work for someone where you can relate to what she did to get here and admire everything she’s accomplished.”
Previously, Whalen had found this kind of connection networking at the Women in Aviation International annual conference, which hosts a special day of events for the Coast Guard each February. (Feb. 24 and 25, this year). Because there might be only one or two women pilots at some air stations, the service typically sponsors aviators who want to attend. "It’s a great opportunity to meet fellow female aviators and share experiences,” she said.
Getting to work with such accomplished women, she says, has been even better.
That said, each of the women in the command cautioned overplaying gender. “It’s not because we’re female that we’re in these roles,” Steele said. “It’s because we’ve earned them. But it’s still great to be able to say, isn’t it cool that we’re all female.”
Schwartz agrees. In the case of their boss, she says, you know that anyone in her position is going to be talented and accomplished. “It’s good that we have a very open command relationship and that we’re all similar minded,” she said. “That eases communication. But I’ve had really good open relationships with other supervisors (both male and female).”
What sets Knutson apart, she added, is her approachability. “She’s easy to talk to – even about bad news,” Schwartz said, “and very level- headed and calm. I have had supervisors before that if you call with a question or you know they’re not going to like what you say, you have that feeling. What’s great about Capt. Knutson is I don’t have that feeling. I can call her with literally any problem or challenge. Even if she doesn’t agree, I don’t have to worry.”
In the air rescue business, that’s not a bad way to be. Like most air stations, North Bend takes its mission very seriously, but has a relaxed culture. The command gathers for Monday and Thursday morning briefings to get up date on what’s happening in the sector. They all discuss what’s going on with small boats, the mechanical status of helicopters, weather reports, and significant cases. Afterwards, the captain breaks off to meet with her deputy and department heads.
There’s also an open-door policy. “The idea is you want people, no matter their rank, to feel they can speak up if they notice something is wrong because these are life and death missions,” Steele said.
On a cutter you wouldn’t see a non-rate talk to a captain, Steele said. But she enjoys having “all the people at the air station from the most junior to the most senior staff stop by and talk to the command."
On the day we spoke, Steele had a post-it on her door frame to let visitors know she was dog-sitting and to feel free to stop in. One of the small things Knutson has done to boost morale during raining North Bend winters, is to make the station more pet friendly. There are bowls of dog treats on member’s desks, and a huge bucket of toys in the captain’s office, where you just might be greeted by one of Knutson’s two Husky rescue dogs.
“I find, in general, that it brightens people’s day when they see a tail wagging at them from under their neighbor’s desk or a sweet little wet nose coming through the door,” Knutson said. “Our dog owners have a good understanding of when it’s appropriate to bring a pet and when it’s better to leave them at home.”
So far, the feedback has been positive. That station has received good responses to surveys, like, “I wouldn’t change anything, the command is great,” Steel said. They also hear a lot from members who have left for other stations saying they wish they were still in North Bend. “The thing people say about here is that they’re just able to do their jobs and excel.”
Knutson said it was never her goal to “come in and make sweeping changes to a place where people already enjoyed living and working." In April, the Coast Guard plans to disestablish Sector North Bend and reassign their current sector responsibilities to Sector Columbia River which is relocating to Portland, Oregon. After Knutson helps complete that transition, she and her team will remain responsible for the air station in North Bend.
Her senior officers praise her for being a hands-off boss, who likes to be kept in the loop, but let’s them do their jobs. Knutson said she’s been proud of how the command has supported members and what the unit has accomplished, including the national recognition that some of the personnel have received for their hard work. Lt.Cmdr. Maggie Champlin won the 2022 Capt. Dorothy Stratton Award for Leadership and Chief Petty Officer Thomas Roposa won the 2021 Neils P. Thompson innovation award.
“When you have such incredible people working for you,” she said, “the best thing you can do is get out of the way and clear the path for the amazing things they’ll be doing.”