Innovation steeped in tradition

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- The first weekend in November, my son and I traveled to West Point to watch the Air Force Falcons play the Army Black Knights – the hockey games were our agenda Friday and Saturday evening with football sandwiched on Saturday afternoon. 

I have not visited West Point since competing against them in an inter-service academy soccer rivalry many years ago. Now, with my experienced (the kind word for “old”) eyes, I viewed the U.S. Military Academy with a different appreciation and perspective than I did in 1988. 

 

Back then, I was more interested in looking forward; history did not capture my attention as much as the future intrigued me.  

 

Now, looking back, I want to absorb more knowledge of the past, intricate details of the heroes who came before us. I contemplated the legends that walked those grounds like Sylvanus Thayer, General Douglas McArthur or General George S. Patton, and the greatness the institution cultivated. 

 

The West Point motto of “Duty, Honor, Country,” is palpable amongst the cadets, it electrifies the student body… at sporting events, passing families on campus and at “Zulu Time” in the historic Thayer Hotel. 

 

The mist sweeping over the Hudson River to the athletic fields soaked with historical sweat and blood seemed to exude an aura. It is a bit overwhelming; the institution has existed for 214 years, longer than the existence of the Air Force Academy - let alone the Air Force itself. 

 

It reminded me of a question a member of my unit once asked “If the Air Force is constantly changing, do we really have traditions and a culture?” Absolutely; time does not dictate whether we have rich history or honored traditions… Airmen do.

 

According to our former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, “Our service has literally been founded on innovation. It is part of our DNA… it is where our Airmen thrive.” 

 

The Air Force has masterfully empowered innovation at every level. This is our history; that is our strength and it’s our future.

For newly minted Airmen: Our enlisted genesis, Air Force Basic Military Training significantly changed last year. Rather than a formal graduation ceremony at seven-and-a-half weeks; five extra days of instruction were added to provide critical life skills.

 

While the action was initially prompted by misconduct, it is an example of innovation.  Not only does the additional time emphasize corps values as well as build character and stress management tools, it provides a dedicated venue for Airman input to the program they just finished. The Air Force considers the time as an “Investment in their future as Airmen… it’s revolutionary,” Col. Michele Edmondson, commander of the 737th Training Group stated. 

 

Similarly the Air Force Academy, one source of commissioned officers, commissioned a ‘Cyber Innovation Center’  in 2016 to instill the mind-set of future change. According to Col. Joe “Hark” Herold of the Air Force Academy, the center is different from the more traditional cyber proving grounds. The CIC, in addition to being a joint venture with local industry, is using “Design Thinking”. “Design Thinking” as defined by Stanford University combines different perspectives, collaboration across multiple disciplines and culminates interdisciplinary and out-of-the-box thinking.

 

In these ways, the Air Force sets the stage to build mentally prepared Airmen, who will further mold our force to meet the evolving global challenges.

 

Locally there are innovative examples as well. Col. April Vogel, 6th Air Mobility Wing Commander, incorporates U Poll, or phone text responses to queries of her population to target areas for improvement. She meets the innovative Airmen with a like-minded tool to generate and consolidate ideas. These types of approaches have led to significantly improved traffic issues at the gates and expedited building repairs among other projects.

 

Col. Kevin Wright, 6th Medical Group Commander, promotes continuous process improvement through flight “white boards.” The flights own the content of the white boards which are populated by anyone with an idea and highlight creativity towards efficiency in mission and morale. Group & Squadron Executive staff - since we have the advantage of being collocated - visit each boards twice per month for cross talk and provide a visible platform for the Medical Staff to maintain forward movement. These ideas highlight commanders who are embracing our values and cultivating an innovative ethos in the service’s next generation of leaders – I’m certain there are many more examples across our wing and installation.

 

December 2015, the Air Force assessed a growing demand for unmanned aircraft system pilots and determined one potential source would be within our ranks. In October of 2016, the first group of enlisted Airmen started remotely piloted aircraft training. When they graduate, they will pilot aircraft such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk.

 

Providing enlisted personnel the opportunity to fly RPAs increases the manpower available to support one of the most sought after skill-sets in the Air Force today. In turn, that increases mission effectiveness. That’s our tradition – thinking outside the box and tapping into new reservoirs to provide a stronger fighting force.

 

The shoulders upon which today’s Airmen stand were not content with the status quo. They knew there were better ways and different avenues to execute the mission – that is their legacy.

 

Yes, the Air Force does change. We constantly scrutinize our methods and approaches to benefit those who will come after us. This does not make us weak or indicate we lack tradition. It’s a strength that we embrace voluntarily and absolutely. We will not execute simply because that is the way we have always performed. We will implement the smartest, most efficient, and most technologically advanced way we can…because innovation is our tradition. 

 

The New York trip was amazing. The autumn leaves were a brilliant red, orange and yellow blaze blanketing the rolling hills for which upstate New York is known. The Falcons beat the Knights in hockey, as well as football on Saturday. So, the Air Force Academy brought home the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy for the 20th time in its 44 year history – that is certainly a tradition to savor.