That moment when an Air Force pilot asks the plane’s crew chief if the jet is good to go, and that young airmen says yes, is the essence of what a fighter wing is all about if you ask Langley Air Force Base’s 1st Fighter Wing’s new commander.
And Col. William Creeden, who as an enlisted airman was such a crew chief on F-16 fighters before earning his commission and putting in 1,800 hours in the air — and before each flight, having exactly that moment with his planes’ crew chiefs.
“That’s the last word anyone has before you take off,” Creeden said. “Trust is at the heart of it.”
Creeden, as kid from the corner of Virginia where Fauquier, Loudoun and Prince William counties meet, enlisted in the Virginia Air National Guard in 1995, as a member of an F-16 maintenance crew.
Which raises another point, besides trust in the enlisted men and women, that he sees as essential in leading the wing — recognizing that the crew chief, in turn, has to trust that a team of enlisted specialists know exactly what they need to do, and then do it.
“It really is all about the team,” Creeden said.
He commands a team of 1,700. They are responsible for the two squadrons of F-22s that account for one third of the Air Force’s combat F-22 Raptors. The wing also flies the T-38s flown as adversary aircraft for training fighter pilots.
“The F-22 is an amazing weapon system, unmatched by any fielded air superiority fighter in history,” Creeden said. “However, it takes a highly trained, highly diverse, and highly disciplined team to accomplish anything with it, with the vast majority of this team being enlisted.”
Creeden said he feels particularly aware of that after five years as an enlisted airman.
“I think I know the situations they face, all the pushes and pulls that affect them,” he said.
And he believes his unusual experience on either side of those crew chief-to-pilot moments is one of many examples of the diversity he sees within the wing, and the Air Force generally. While the bulk of his flight time has been on F-15s and F-22s, he’s put in time that not every fighter pilot has on the big Air Force HC-130 search and resuce planes ― multi-engine turboprops — as well as HH60 helicopters.
“Diversity allows us to open our field of view, so we are not staring through a soda straw,” he said.
There aren’t that many airmen who share his experience growing up in rural Virginia, or who knew as children they wanted to join the military after a fighter-pilot veteran grandfather took them to an airshow.
But Creeden says he learns a lot listening to airmen who grew up in big cities, or speaking other languages, or who know things about being a racial minority or a woman that he does not.
“If we continue to only see the same issue or challenge all through the same lens, we will have a tremendous number of blind spots,” he said. “If you don’t have an outside perspective, you’ll only be as good as your own personal lens.”
After a career that saw postings in Oklahoma, Texas, Florida, Alaska and most recently as commander of the 53d Test and Evaluation Group at Nellis Air Force Base outside of Las Vegas, it feels good to come back to Virginia, he said.
“I never imagined a future like this growing up on Bull Run Mountain,” he said. “This state has given my family and I so much.”