Prior enlisted Air Force Academy Cadet visits former unit

  • Published
  • By 2d Lt Danny Rangel
  • 552nd Air Control Wing

Cadet 4th Class Zachary Benson, a former enlisted member of the 552nd Air Control Wing and now a cadet fourth class at the U.S. Air Force Academy, recently had the opportunity to fly with his former colleagues back at Tinker.

Benson, a former communications systems operator with the 963rd Airborne Air Control Squadron, visited Tinker AFB as part of the Sponsor Wing Program, a U.S. Air Force Academy initiative meant to link cadet squadrons with operational units throughout the Air Force.  Benson joined with 22 other Air Force Academy cadets for the visit, which included tours, orientation briefings and two flights aboard the E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System.

For Benson, returning to his prior unit was a unique learning experience.

“I’m a little different from the rest of the cadets,” Benson said.  “I know what it’s like to be an enlisted aviator, and this visit reminds me of where I came from and my roots.  Being able to come back and see where my journey in the Air Force started, it reminds me of my enlisted experience and my motivation in joining the Air Force.”

The visit back to the 552nd ACW was also a chance for Benson to reflect on his time aboard the E-3 and the importance of enlisted aviators in the Air Force.

“The people flying on the AWACS are the tip of the spear,” said Benson.  “It means a lot to me to have had a seat on the jet.  Enlisted aviators make up a small percentage of the Air Force and a small portion of the aerial community, so being able to come back to this community and see where it all started has been incredible.”

Benson’s journey to the Air Force Academy began during his enlisted term of service at the 552nd ACW.  Benson’s former supervisor, Capt. Jason Gabrick, an air battle manager and flight commander with the 966th AACS, offered helpful information about the Air Force Academy.  After learning more about the commissioning process and submitting an application, Benson was accepted in 2017.

“As a former enlisted aviator, Cadet Benson brings to the fight a breadth of experience that few other future officers have,” said Gabrick.  “I had the unique pleasure of flying combat missions with him before he left for the Academy and I’m proud to have played a role in his journey from enlisted aviator to officer.  I’m excited to see the great things he’ll do in the future.”

Benson said his experience as a 552nd ACW enlisted member has enriched his journey at the Air Force Academy and has helped other cadets better understand the operational Air Force and the air control mission.

“There are lessons here at the 552nd ACW that I’ve brought with me to the Academy,” Benson said.  “Everyone comes from different backgrounds here, and for me, I can see the Air Force through multiple lenses because of my time on the AWACS.  The enlisted perspective is really invaluable, and it helps future officers understand how to lead their Airmen.”