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Past and present 1st AF commanders meet to discuss future challenges

  • Published
  • CONR-1AF (AFNORTH) Public Affairs
Eight former 1st Air Force commanders met with the current 1st AF commander to discuss future operations during an inaugural, two-day “Evolution of 1st AF Commanders Forum” here, March 13-14. Spouses also attended.

According to Lt. Gen. R. Scott Williams, 1st AF commander and event host, the forum provided a significant opportunity to understand historical challenges from a distinguished group of commanders.

Participants discussed different approaches to endeavors ranging from managing day-to-day operations to changing to organizational structure. He said such discussions go a long way improving the performance of 1st AF in future operations.

“A lot of the same issues and challenges that existed during their command tenures still exist today,” Williams said. “But they also present an opportunity to learn from the experiences of commanders in charge during some of the most significant events in 1st Air Force history – the 9/11 attacks; Hurricane Katrina; OPERATION Tomadachi repatriation after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan; and Operation UNIFIED RESPONSE after the Haiti earthquake.”

The event started with video clips featuring each commander, highlighting the top three events or challenges encountered during their respective commands. Twenty-four years of continuous 1st AF leadership were represented, beginning with Maj. Gen. Philip Killey, commander from 1994 to 1997. Killey is also the namesake of the 1st AF Headquarters building. After the video, each former commander expounded on highlights from their command.

Killey commented on his previous air defense role.

“My biggest challenge was not only weaving through the legalities of Title 32 Airmen conducting Title 10 missions, but also finding and securing the right resources,” said Killey. “Looking at that capacity now, with these previous commanders who helped make it happen, there’s no comparison.”

During the two-day period, attendees received both classified and unclassified briefings. Former commanders were accompanied by their spouses for the unclassified portions of the agenda which featured sessions at the Killey Center and the 601st Air Operations Center.
During the classified sessions, spouses enjoyed their own itinerary featuring some local attractions.

Self-driven discussions spilled into overtime more than once as participants debated the finer points of the evolution of the 1st Air Force mission. But, no matter the mission area, participants were unanimous in emphasizing the important of relationships – whether military to military, interagency, or interpersonal-- as a means to forward progress with the organization.

For Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Garry Dean, it was 1st Air Force’s role in the response to the Haiti earthquake in 2010 that reminded him of the value of strong relationships. Robust joint and interagency ties allowed Dean and his staff to work with Haiti officials to form a Regional Air Mobility Control Element, taking a random collection of humanitarian airlift flights and organizing it in to an efficient and safe stream of desperately needed aid.

Reflecting on his positive experience at the 1st AF Commander’s Forum, Dean remarked,” This was an awesome event that demonstrated the strength of our relationships. We took the time to come together and share insights and thoughts to help continue the successes we’ve all had while meeting challenges of being a 1st Air Force commander,” Dean said.

Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Larry Arnold, was the 1st Air Force commander when the nation was attacked on September 11. These tragic events prompted the formation of a new combatant command, NORTHCOM, responsible for military security and bilateral defense relationships in North America.

“I just remember telling my superiors that day, ‘the world has changed,’ and thinking that sometimes you just have to do what you have to do until someone tells you to stop,” Arnold said.

Gen. (Ret.) Craig McKinley, who succeeded Arnold in 2002, subsequently became the first-ever national guard four-star general and chief of the Guard Bureau. He said he remembers how frustrating it was to watch the trend toward a shrinking military force in the late 1990s and then making an overwhelming effort to answer the country’s call after the 9/11 attacks.

“It was very nostalgic but also incredibly beneficial to sit down and discuss the tremendous amount of progress 1st Air Force has made in the air defense domain,” said McKinley, who served as commander until 2004. “There were significant progress and contributions on every person’s watch which I can only attribute to the outstanding professionalism and commitment of the dedicated people in the organization. That is something that has not changed.”

Hurricane Katrina helped define the command time of Maj. Gen. (Ret.) M. Scott Mayes, who succeeded McKinley.

“It’s evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary,” said Mayes, when he spoke of his experience during Hurricane Katrina. “Every catastrophe had its lessons learned and I couldn’t have asked for a better team than those who laid the groundwork before me as I faced a multitude of tasks and directions during Hurricane Katrina.”

Mayes explained his biggest and most memorable lesson during response efforts involved striking a critical balance between arriving neither too early nor too late with requested resources.

Williams, who led response efforts for three major hurricanes from August to October in 2017, readily agreed about the importance of that balance.

“It’s definitely a matter of finesse when it comes to getting the right resources to the right place, at the right time,” Williams said. “But as you have all indicated when you’ve recounted your experiences, I’m also fortunate to have some of the most knowledgeable, experienced staff I could ask for, and if they don’t know [an answer], they know who does.”

As Williams closed the conference, several of the commanders reiterated how valuable it was to not only recount their command experience to others but to gain insight into current and future missions and organizational structures.

“I thought this was a fantastic conference for all involved,” Williams said. “The discussions this event format generated proved both enlightening and invaluable.”