A Note on Excellence

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Joseph Knothe, 420th Air Base Squadron commander

We are now into our second year of combating COVID-19 and adapting to the resulting upheaval to our way of life. It goes without saying that twelve months ago none of us were expecting the lockdowns to last as long as they have or be as limiting as they are.  Nonetheless, we endure them to save lives and we will continue to do so for as long as it takes. The last time the world experienced lockdowns on this scale was 1918 when our predecessors were simultaneously battling the Spanish Influenza and World War I. During that 1918 lockdown, schools closed, pubs and restaurants shut their doors, and countless businesses went under. Yet, then, just as now, politics, war, and life go on. 

First, I want to applaud the resiliency of our Airmen. Regardless of what comes your way, you continue to do the mission, you continue to innovate, and you continue to take care of one another because that is the only way to succeed in our business. Our enemies never stop scheming, and therefore, we must always be ready to defend our nation and our allies. That means taking calculated risks to train and to complete our operations and mission support roles. For RAF Fairford, it means continuing to host U-2s and Bomber Task Forces. It means participating in joint readiness exercises as aircraft based here engage with our NATO allies in missions all around Europe. It means remaining flexible in our approach to supporting our Airmen within COVID-19 safety regulations.  It means remaining vigilant as a standby airfield for B-52s and B-2s as they project power around the globe. And it means continuing to be a great neighbor to our hosts. As military men and women, we understand that we may be placed into harm’s way if that is what it takes to achieve our objectives. As Airmen, we do it willingly because that is what is expected in our noble profession.  

Second, I want to share a short story. A few months ago, I was particularly impressed with an Airman from the 420th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron. In the autumn, before the second lockdown began, a Distinguished Visitor came to RAF Fairford to assess mission readiness and capabilities. The visit itself was uneventful; the wing commander, group commander, and I gave a short mission brief and tour to show off ongoing construction projects. We also highlighted our prominence as the principal bomber forward-operating location in Europe. All was fine until the end of the trip when the distinguished visitor boarded his aircraft for departure. Per standard protocol, the three of us stood on the flight line to salute as the aircraft taxied away. We waited…and waited. Normally, the process of starting engines and taxiing takes five minutes tops. After about twenty minutes, we knew something was amiss. Sure enough, the cabin door opened and luggage starts being dropped out onto the ramp. A member of the aircrew approached us and says, “There’s a positive COVID case on the aircraft.” Clearly, this was a problem that we were going to have to remedy.

Within seconds, the 420th Air Base Squadron director of operations and chief of services were on the phone working a solution. We had to get the sick person off the aircraft along with those who were deemed close contacts. In all, there were six people that had to disembark. Unable to fly home, and unable to go to a hotel, they were stuck. Rather than leave them stranded on the runway, we elected to house them on base in our contingency dormitories. Here, they could safely quarantine, receive meals, and have access to medical care. The chief of services had rooms prepared and ready to accept the six personnel in a matter of minutes. The director of operations readied ground transportation to take them to the dorms. This is where the stated Airman comes into play. There was no way around it; someone, at personal risk, had to drive the COVID-positive team member to the dormitory. I spoke to the Airman myself so that he would know the order came directly from his commander. I thought the Airman might be hesitant or apprehensive about knowingly being exposed to COVID. However, all I saw was a big smile and extreme pride in performing a hazardous duty in direct support of his nation. It was apparent that the Airman delighted in the idea of taking on personal risk to serve a fellow Airman in need. So, he dutifully drove the infected team to the dorms and then left his bus in the sun to bake for a few days. Afterwards, he went to his room to begin fourteen days of quarantine.

I was thoroughly impressed with the Airman, but I also understand that any Airman would have done exactly the same thing when asked. There is risk in our business, and when it serves a necessary purpose, we enthusiastically accept it. Be it COVID-19, or deployments to Africa, or other dangerous jobs, our Airmen are accomplished at taking prudent risk. We are resilient, we are professional, and above all, we are a family. I am proud to serve alongside each of you and I am proud to serve our great nation. As I head off to teach AFROTC [Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps] cadets in New Hampshire this spring, I will continue to tell the story above as an example of what “service before self” means. It is but one of a great number of stories of excellence that I will recount about the amazing Airmen in our 501st Combat Support Wing.