AWACS pilot makes history as Red Flag mission commander

  • Published
  • By 2d Lt Ashlyn K. Paulson
  • 552nd Air Control Wing

RED FLAG 20-1 marked a significant milestone for the 960th Airborne Air Control Squadron when Capt. Preston Radford, an instructor pilot for the E-3 Sentry Air Warning and Control System, was selected to serve as mission commander for one of the daily exercises.

While RED FLAG has been operating out of Nellis Air Force Base, quarterly since 1975, this marks the third time in the exercise’s history that an AWACS pilot has been selected to serve as mission commander.

“As mission commander, I was in charge of executing and coordinating the mission that was laid out before me,” Radford said. “The night before the event, I was handed the task of defensive counter air, or protecting our forces. The following day, the team had eight hours to plan, communicate and execute the mission.”

During the execution phase, Radford led the entire 75-minute mission of 20 different aircraft including the F-35A/B Lightning II, the EA-18G Growler, the F-16 Viper and the Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4, the E-3 AWACS and the Control and Reporting Centers comprised of American, British and Australian military units.

One of the roles as mission commander is to coordinate with functional team leads to respond to unplanned real-time dilemmas. For this mission specifically, maintenance caused multiple assets to not launch, forcing Radford and the team leads to change strategy minutes before the mission to ensure friendly forces were adequately protected.

“This position is typically given to someone in the back of the aircraft,” Capt. Kevin Gahris said, the project officer for the 960th AACS contingent. “Mission commanders must understand each role on the jet, and the roles of each asset tasked in case last-minute decisions need to be made. Radford proved technical and leadership expertise through effective planning and commanded his mission team executing that plan through the challenging wartime environment.”

Radford was selected for this position based off his technical skills, ability to integrate efficiently and his leadership skills within the unit.

Radford said his biggest take-away from this experience is to not over complicate tasks.

“When trying to be perfect for a flying mission, simple is best. To prepare for this role, lead confidently and ensure you have the humility to receive feedback not only to ensure you are the best Airman but the unit has the best possibility for mission success.”