Really, Charleston?


When I showed up to Charleston Air Force Base in 1999 as a new copilot, the place was run by operational giants. The outgoing commander of my squadron at the time was a guy by the name of Lt. Col. Fred Cianciolo … a gruff-mannered and imposing 6’4″ linebacker whose expectations were matched only by his example. His fellow commanders were men of similar stature. They afforded their reputations as a “dream team” responsible for maturing the C-17 crew force before the next war arrived.

For my first two years at that base, I got to be part of what in retrospect was a special operating environment. Pilots were not encouraged to focus obsessively on the mission … it was a non-negotiable expectation. At the core of a zealous tactical ethos was the standing requirement to study. Study hard. All the time. General knowledge and emergency procedures knowledge were foundational to pilot development, and no one was permitted to advance in qualification without knowing his or her stuff cold. Instructors called balls and strikes, and not everyone get to move up. Upgrades were important back then, because subpar pilots generally couldn’t expect to get promoted beyond captain, and certainly couldn’t expect much of a career.

By the time I returned to Charleston for my own command tour a dozen years later, the giants had long since been slain. Operations were slave to support bureaucracies that were under-staffed and largely disinterested. Everyone — most of all the generals and their staffs manning a growing complex of headquarters staffs — had been burned out by a decade of endless war and cumulative fatigue. It is in moments such as this that good organizations relocate their souls and recapture their glory.

But neither Charleston nor its parent Air Mobility Command were good organizations. Rather than find themselves, they became ever more lost, succumbing to wave after wave of bureaucratic BS. Operations wasn’t the focus. Pilots weren’t expected to study … and in fact they weren’t given time to do so, instead kept constantly saturated with administrative tasks and self-support. Sitting behind a desk — once the fast road to shame and shunning in a warrior order — evolved into a sought-after opportunity. Promotions were de-coupled from flying expertise. Being the best pilot didn’t matter if your squares weren’t checked. Being the worst pilot didn’t matter if your squares were checked. Pushing a pencil was more important than pushing a set of throttles.

This toxic environment, driven by a panoply of poisonous influences from divided command and joint basing to PBD 720 and ForeverWar, was made a thousand times worse by senior generals who, ignoring their own experiences as line pilots, pretended they could expect operational excellence without giving pilots the time to work their craft. Some even blamed pilots for the entire phenomenon, implying they lacked the commitment of previous generations and at times outright calling them lazy. This as accident after accident clearly showed a decay in operational focus at the systemic level. This as a tireless generation of Americans who signed up after 9/11/01 toiled in wheel-spinning conflicts without resources or clear direction for the best years of their adult lives.

A couple of years ago, at Charleston and elsewhere, a sort of turnaround started to take shape. The right commanders got into the seats at the headquarters and at key wings. They began quietly and later more transparently acknowledging the systemic nature of the degradation of their business. They didn’t attack staffs at Scott Air Force Base and the Pentagon with the kind of energy and acid needed to shock the system back toward its functional form, but they did get to grips with the fact that things were not hunky dory. This dawning realization continues, though it is too slow and too late.

But even with some optimism to herald … as is usually the case … two steps forward are usually followed by a step back. Here’s a screenshot of what Charleston is now including in the aircrew publications pilots carry with them on road trips.

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That’s right. Along with thousands of pages of manuals and checklists — enough that even the most committed operator can never master it all — crews are now carrying with them the JB Charleston OPR/EPR and Awards Guide, so there can be no excuse for not writing performance assessments and award packages on the road when they’re supposed to be focusing obsessively on how to employ a C-17.

This is a silly move, probably undertaken by an unintentionally silly person. It should be swiftly reversed. Don’t legitimize poor focus. Don’t create a standing expectation of using road time for administrivia. Don’t artificially meet admin deadlines by putting admin work in the operational bucket, displacing operational things. Expect and demand that pilots hit the books on the road when they’re not otherwise engaged, and give them the proper time and support when they’re home to write reports and tend to their supervisory roles. Streamline and simplify the way information is presented to them. Clear the distracting underbrush rather than growing more.

Very disappointing coming from what was once a shining beacon of operational excellence before devolving into just another fielded staff masquerading as an airlift hub. For a while, it looked like things might be turning around. Can we still say that?

Not so long as the ePubs are issued with this document included.

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