The Greatest Squadron Commander Leadership Decision of all Time

  • Published
  • By Lt Col William Walkowiak, USAF
  • Thirteenth Air Force

The Greatest Squadron Commander Leadership Decision of all Time
And how you can make one too

By Lt Col William Walkowiak, USAF

"There are no bad regiments, only bad colonels."

Napoleon believed leaders were responsible for the actions of their subordinates. It was no accident that author Tony Kern begins his monograph, "A Darker Shade of Blue" with this quote expressing perfectly the importance of leadership in the performance of organizations[1]. Throughout a career, every Airman, from basic trainee to our most senior general officer, has numerous opportunities to choose to exercise exceptional leadership. . For aviators, the opportunity to make the right choice and influence a broader group of young aviators comes with flying squadron command. Flying squadron commanders are empowered to lead their organizations to achieve their designated mission. From my perspective, one of the most critical responsibilities accompanying that empowerment is ensuring the unit achieves its goals in the most effective and safe manner possible. But to be empowered to lead and the willingness to accept the responsibility to put empowerment into action are two different things. In order to lead, all Airmen must understand the responsibilities leadership empowerment entails and that to lead we often must make tough choices--and perhaps the hardest choice is to recognize ineffective and unsafe behavior and act to change that behavior.

It seems that within the decision making process those charged to lead often experience some level of internal conflict regarding what is expeditious and what is appropriate. My unscientific observations lead me to believe good, honest leaders, through experience, intuitively grasp the importance of decisions that affect the team, especially decisions regarding safety. Such leaders understand their decisions must be based upon the greater good and not on unnecessary considerations like whether or not a particular decision will reflect poorly on an individual and/or group, and whether or not the resulting actions of a decision are unpopular.

It's become cliché, but nonetheless accurate that actions often communicate louder than words and the act of making those tough decisions based upon the greater good may in fact cast an unfavorable light on some individuals and/or groups; and may be unpopular among the team. But the ability to intuitively make those tough decisions is gained through the maturation process and comes when an individual internalizes the reality that as a leader he or she is now segregated from being just "one of the guys". 

Our Air Force has had a proud and distinguished history of personal sacrifice, honor, integrity, professionalism, and innovation protecting our country. Few Airmen have failed to live up to the expectations and trust our nation has vested in our force. But like any large organization the Air Force has experienced the evolution of particular internal "tribal" cultures in which occasional lapses in good judgment and adherence to conventional wisdom, gone unchecked, become the norm. In some cases, those tribal cultures of non-compliance and non-convention, rooted in delusional perceptions of "uniqueness" and "singularity" evolve into potentially force endangering situations. 

The gradual shift to a culture and environment that boosts uniqueness and accepts unnecessary risk in achieving its mission goals begins with small deviations from the generally accepted norm. Sometimes corners are cut and risky performance enhancements are incorporated into an organization's daily activities. Safety is generally the first casualty of this evolutionary cultural shift. And once the trend line is in place, unimpaired by institutionalized and restrictive regulations or standardized through multiple Wing and MAJCOM Stan/Eval protocols, the very real potential exists that the acceptable operational envelop is progressively and aggressively stretched far beyond its intended elasticity. 

Two examples of this phenomenon jump to mind, one bad and one good. They illustrate culture-based decision processes in which leadership choices generated significantly different consequences. The first example, one many are familiar with, is the tragic, and most definitely unavoidable, June 24, 1994 crash of a Fairchild AFB B-52. This particular tragedy has become a standard case study in leadership malfeasance. Essentially, the unnecessarily risky flying practices of one individual that went uncontested for years led to the deaths of the entire crew when Lt Col Bud Holland stalled his aircraft and it plunged to earth following an air show practice. My second example is more personal and highlights the 1994 "No more tower fly-bys at Ascension Island" directive issued by Lt Col Dave Eichhorn, the 452nd Flight Test Squadron Commander at Edwards AFB, CA. Both cases illuminate some aspect of leadership. In the first case leadership failed, and in the second cases it took enormous moral courage to enact a policy that was not only counter to the organizational culture of the unit, but was very unpopular with unit members. 

On June 24, 1994, Czar 52, a B-52 bomber flew an air show practice with four senior officers on board. The pilot, Lt Col Bud Holland was the wing's chief of stan/eval and the air show pilot. The copilot was the bomb squadron commander, a Lt Col instructor pilot; the wing's vice commander, a colonel, was flying as safety observer; and the bomb squadron's operations officer, a Lt Col, was the radar navigator. After the practice was completed and the crew was ready to land, Czar 52 was directed by the tower to execute a go-around because another aircraft on the runway. The B-52 attempted a tight left turn at only 250 feet AGL (above ground level). Approximately three quarters of the way through the turn, the aircraft passed 90 degrees of bank, stalled and crashed[2], to the horror of many watching and filming the practice.

Aircrews and aviation neophytes alike viewed the video footage of the maneuver with equal dismay. It was so patently obvious that an aircraft the size of a B-52 with its inherent high altitude, level flight design was incapable of continuing to fly when forced well beyond its intended flight envelope. This tragedy was avoidable and it was consequential to a series of gratuitous leadership decisions that placed Lt Col Holland in that cockpit on that fateful day. Despite years of aggressive and often reckless flying behavior, Lt Col Holland was nonetheless chosen the B-52 flight demonstration pilot in 1994. He was anointed by the commander with a "special" status even though many familiar with Holland's flying practices knew they were far too aggressive and most certainly unsafe. Complaints by other crew members, many of whom refused to fly with Lt Col Holland, went unheeded at various levels of leadership over a protracted period of time. The astute observer could have predicted a violent conclusion to both Lt Col Holland's flying behavior and the complete abdication of moral courage by leadership to curb such behavior. [3]. 

Conversely, I've had personal experience with a squadron commander who chose to accept responsibility for the actions of his people. He had the moral courage to dispatch miscreant flying practices in the face of significant subordinate disapproval. 

The 4950th Test Wing was cobbled together in the mid-1970's to consolidate disparate test support resources at a centrally managed location in what was then Air Force Systems Command, now Air Force Material Command. Two of the three squadrons flew the Advanced Range Instrumentation aircraft (ARIA), modified KC-135 and commercial Boeing 707 airliners. The ARIA was designed to collect telemetry data for the Apollo space program, and later used to support myriad space, and missile test events from 1968 to its retirement in 2002. 

Besides being in a different MAJCOM than most other C-135 aircraft these flight crew were "special" because each was a hand-picked senior pilot, instructor pilot, or navigator from a pool of highly qualified Strategic Air Command applicants, and senior flight engineers, mostly former C-141 or 89th AW engineers. As a result, there were no lieutenant pilots and navigators, and lieutenant colonels were few and far between. So, the group of 100 or so pilots and navigators consisted predominately of experienced captains and majors--a generational band that considered itself bullet-proof. 

Out from under the stricture of the Strategic Air Command, these heavy flying squadrons were refreshingly free of excessive oversight. In contrast to the strict regimentation of SAC , the three squadrons enjoyed a more relaxed operational environment with comparatively fewer command-directed flying rules. The unit prided itself on getting the job done thoroughly and professionally. For instance, there was a training regulation cross-wind limit for the conduct of touch & go landing practice in SAC, and when I asked my squadron commander about it, he said that, "we don't have that limit here, but we hired you to exercise good judgment, so be conservative." 

The group enjoyed a relatively strong social bond attributable to the uniqueness of the mission and proximity of age/experience among the members. That bond was further strengthened by the experience we mutually had during the many TDYs we were assigned. 

The unit supported an amazing variety of worldwide space and missile test missions which brought the ARIA to every corner of the globe[4]. One of the most often visited locations was Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. 

Located over 1000 miles from an alternate landing site in Brazil or West Africa, it is one of the more isolated single runways in the world. The entire island is no more than 6 miles across at its widest point and is mostly devoid of all vegetation, earning its nickname as "the rock". Its landscape is dominated by a dormant volcano, Green Mountain, which juts over 2800 feet into the sky. 

During my first three years in the unit I had completed 19 missions to the rock and I observed a series of events and "group think" which put the squadron on a collision course with probable disaster. 

Starting sometime in 1990, an Ascension Island Volcano Club conversation with one of the tower controllers led to the establishment of a runway flyover practice as part of our departure at the end of a TDY. The idea was simple. The prevailing winds generally drove all takeoffs to the east on RWY 14 toward Africa which necessitated a turn to the west to head back home. Due to the extreme remoteness of the island, we would normally take off on a telephonically arranged clearance time and then get established into the oceanic tracking system after airborne HF radio contact was established with a controlling agency. So there was really no problem doing a 180 to fly back over the runway on departure. Of course, it isn't much of a flyover if you pass the runway at 3-4000 feet after your climbing 180 degree turn, so we had to modify the climb profile a bit to do a flyover. 

The group agreed this practice demonstrated our gratitude for the hard work the support teams did and would motivate the team to keep up the good work. The intention was noble, but the probable unintended consequences were not well considered. The first series of flyovers were relatively tamed , flown safely with a little rock of the wings, perhaps 1000 - 1500 feet over the runway at about 250 knots. The tower folks who had gathered for the flyover gave loud praise over the radio as we departed. Word spread throughout our small community of pilots and a tradition was born. The problem with these gray area traditions is that there are no controls and aren't normal "text book" maneuvers despite seeming harmless and a benefit to local community relations. 

As the months passed, we occasionally heard of someone who had flown the flyover lower and/or faster. A current experienced airline pilot recounts one flyby, "I might have been in the jump seat, Capt Bruce* was at the controls. Anyway, he let it all hang-out, crossing the threshold at around 50', gear-up, in excess of three hundred knots. I recall the stunt got back to home plate, and Capt Bruce was called in on the carpet..."[5] 

Over time, the tower flyby became one of the standard mission profiles. That is until a mission I commanded in 1994 when my squadron commander and new Edwards AFB wing commander were along for the ride. I briefed the maneuver and proudly demonstrated a conservative, in my opinion, version of the departure and subsequent tower pass. I recall flying about 200 - 300 feet AGL down the runway at about 300 KIAS (knots indicated air speed) gear up and executing a relatively aggressive 2G initial pull out. During our overnight refueling stop we were congregated at the squadron's favorite hang-out and the squadron commander told me that unless I could show him in the AF regulations how that maneuver was authorized, there would be no more flybys. Later that week, back at Edwards AFB, I studied the issue and went to his office to confirm what he already knew, that you really shouldn't be doing those maneuvers. The Ascension Island flyovers were halted. 

Initially, the Ascension Island tower flyby ban was not welcomed among the captains in the squadron and was derided as another example of "the man" taking any fun out of the mission. However, now looking back with much more objectivity, I count that decision by that squadron commander as one of the greatest examples of leadership execution I've seen at the squadron level. Certainly, by setting the example and making an unpopular decision, he eliminated a potentially hazardous trend of questionable airmanship. He eliminated a probable developmental training ground for aviators prone to take unnecessary risks for the sake of ego. He established a set of acceptable behaviors for junior aviators to comply with. As our former operations group commander, Col Jimmy Doolittle, III (USAF ret.) told me during an interview for this article, "The low flying record has never been beaten."[6] And perhaps that is most fortuitous for the subsequent aircrews transiting the Ascension Island. Appropriate competition is healthy, but when that competitive culture forces progressively riskier behavior, especially in the flying business, leaders must be willing to look in the mirror and accept the responsibility for the continued health and well-being of their people and make that often tough decision to halt such behavior. At some point the difference between AGL and GL (ground level) is negligible. 

The two examples I've chosen to highlight have the added curiosity of involving crews from what was once considered the most vigorously regulated force in the world...the aircrews of the Strategic Air Command. Within the same organizational culture two leaders developed that on the one hand accepted unnecessary risk as a norm, and on the other, understood the imperatives of the leadership responsibility to make the tough decisions to dispense with unnecessary risk. 

For many of our young Airmen, the events of 1994 related here are ancient histories. But those events must continue to be retold to remind us that diligence is never perfect. We must remain attentive to potential lapses in our professionalism within the ranks, and we must have the courage to confront behavior and practices that put our people at any unnecessary risk. When it comes to our profession of arms we must maintain and enhance the confidence and trust the American people have invested in our corps. We can only do that by continually refining our commitment to protect those who are protecting the nation. It's all about making the tough choices in the face of adversity. 

Lt Col William Walkowiak is a former KC-135, EC-18B (ARIA), and E-3 AWACS pilot. He is currently deployed to Iraq from his position as the Thirteenth Air Force Chief of Safety at Hickam AFB, Hawaii. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the USAF or DoD.

Additional information regarding the tragic crash of Czar 52 at Fairchild AFB can be found at the following web site: 

[1] Kern, Tony B., Major USAF, "Darker shades of blue: A Case Study in Failed Leadership," USAF Academy, 1995.
[2] United States. Department of the Air Force. HQ 12th Air Force. USAF Accident Board Report: 24 Jun 94 B-52H, SN 61-0026, Fairchild AFB, WA, 12 Sep 1994, p.3.
[3] United States, op. cit., pp. 4-9.
[4] For much more information on ARIA visit this website:
[5] Goritsan, James. "Re: Howdee from Hawaii." E-mail to the author. 30 May 2007.
* Capt Bruce is not the pilot's real name.
[6] Doolittle, James H. III, Colonel, USAF (ret.). Telephone interview. 27 May 2007.