Former 552nd ACW commander discusses wing's heritage

  • Published
  • By Darren D. Heusel
  • Tinker Public Affairs
Since assuming command of "America's Wing" back in June, one of the things 552nd Air Control Wing Commander Col. Jay Bickley wanted to do was to find a way to remind his Airmen of their impressive and proud heritage.

It all started last month when Colonel Bickley invited former Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Rod McKinley to be a guest speaker.

That trend continued on Monday, Oct. 28, when retired Brig. Gen. Ben T. Robinson addressed a pair of packed crowds inside the 552nd Operations Group Auditorium on what life was like when he was an Airborne Warning and Control System operator and wing commander during most of his 34 years of military service.

General Robinson was his usual, witty self in detailing his service as a captain pilot on the E-3 "Sentry" AWACS aircraft back in the 1980s, operations group commander in the mid-'90s and wing commander from March 2000 to November 2002.

"In order to drive our Air Force into the future, our Airmen must have a good understanding of where we came from and to hear from the people who got us there," said Colonel Bickley. "General Robinson is a legendary figure in the AWACS community and played a key role in developing our weapon system.

"It is a real honor to have him share his wisdom and experiences with us."

The general talked about his first time in the OG Auditorium, as a young captain sitting on the back row next to a major who would also go on to become a future 552nd ACW commander and brigadier general. He also talked about what it takes to be an effective leader, the wing's first deployment during the first Gulf War, the first time NATO troops were assigned to the U.S. after 9/11, the genesis of crud at Tinker, upgrades to the E-3 and the BLACK HAWK Shootdown, among other things.

General Robinson discussed the transition from P-sorties and M-sorties to C-sorties, the "biggest ORI in the history of the Air Force" taking place at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, an owl hitting a window during a flight, multi-colored T-shirts worn by wing members, engine cover art, cutting the fence on the south side of the base shortly after 9/11, and his last mission in the E-3 as part of "Agile Sentry."

"Shortly after 9/11, we had interstate constipation outside the gates so I summoned this young security forces member to cut a hole in the fence so I could get our AWACS guys on base in order to fly their missions," he said.

"When I got to work, I asked one of my guys if the installation and OC-ALC commanders were aware of what I had done and was told they were both keenly aware," he added. "In fact, then OC-ALC Commander Maj. Gen. Charles L. Johnson said, 'I love it. Ben's gotta do what Ben's gotta do.' I'm thinking this (hole in the fence) would probably last a day, but it ended up lasting nine months as Gate 99. Some went on to refer to it as Robinson's Gate, but I just called it the AWACS Gate."

The general also answered a question about the difference between the Airmen of his time compared with the Airmen of today.

General Robinson responded by saying, "The Airmen of today are a lot smarter and the level of training and expertise is just phenomenal."

He said his fondest memory as wing commander was the way his Airmen performed after 9/11, "watching our maintenance troops prepare and launch jet after jet, 24/7, for nine months."

"On the morning we launched for Operation Enduring Freedom, the crew chief for the first jet watched from the ramp as his jet took off," the general recalled. "He cupped his hands under the jet and appeared to be lifting it into the air as it took off."

The general said he was also fortunate to have been given the task of using the long cord to start the engines on each of the five jets that launched that day for OEF.
General Robinson began his career in 1969 as an enlisted man and would later become a warrant officer in the Army. While in the Army, he flew hundreds of combat missions as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He then enlisted in the Air Force in 1973, attended Officer Training School and pilot training -- again.

He served as the first Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System wing commander at Robins AFB, Ga., as well as three separate tours here at Tinker. He retired as a command pilot with nearly 5,000 flying hours in the B-1, B-2, B-52, CH-3, CH-47, E-3, E-8, TC-18 and UH-1.

The wing's next heritage event will be held on Nov. 6 and include retired Col. Chuck DeBellevue, the highest scoring ace of the Vietnam War and the last American ace on active duty.

Colonel DeBellevue, who flew 220 combat missions as a Laredo High Speed Forward Air Controller and was credited with the destruction of six enemy fighters in aerial combat as a weapons system officer, will address wing members at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. in the OGA.

The former New Orleans, La. resident, who now hails from the Oklahoma City area, wears Command Pilot Wings and the Air Force Maintenance Badge and accumulated more than 3,000 flying hours during his Air Force career. Among his many citations is the Air Force Cross, which he earned "for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an opposing armed force" as an F-4D Weapons System Officer while attached to the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron out of Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, on Sept. 9, 1972.

His citation goes on to read, "On that date, while protecting a large strike force attacking a high priority target deep in hostile territory, then Capt. DeBellevue engaged and destroyed a hostile aircraft. Through superior judgment and use of aircraft capabilities, and in complete disregard for his own safety, Capt. DeBellevue was successful in destroying his fifth hostile aircraft, a North Vietnamese MIG-19."