Heritage to horizons: Advice from former chiefs spans generations |
by Staff Sgt. Julie Weckerlein
Air Force Print News
3/9/2006 - WASHINGTON (AFPN) -- There is one distinct common observation most former chief master sergeants of the Air Force have about today’s Airmen, and that’s the level of education and sophistication coming out of today’s society.
“[When] you talk about our Airmen of today, you also have to talk about the young citizens of today in America,” said retired Chief Master Sgt. James McCoy, who served as the sixth chief master sergeant of the Air Force from August 1979 to July 1981. “They’re better educated and they’re more attuned to what’s going on because of modern communication.”
Chief McCoy was one of nine former top enlisted Airmen to gather here recently. During their visit, a number of them were able to share their views on a variety of topics involving the Air Force today and the Air Force past, all the while offering a glimpse of how life was like in Air Force-past.
Retired Chief Master Sgt. Robert Gaylor, who served as the fifth chief master sergeant of the Air Force from August 1977 to July 1979, said it’s important for Airmen today to know their service's history and heritage.
“You keep from making the same mistakes more than once,” he said. “You learn from others. Why reinvent the wheel and make the same mistakes if you can check back and see how someone else did it? You also realize how good you have it today based on what we didn’t have years before.”
The following are some of their reflections and observations about leadership, today’s pedigree of Airmen and the Air Force culture.
“The main thing I was taught -- and I continue to teach it -- probably the best trait of any leadership is example,” Chief McCoy said. “By setting a proper example, like taking care of your people, by not being so difficult to get along with, by being fair but firm … all of those are attributes that go into good leadership qualifications.”
Retired Chief Master Sgt. Gary Pfingston served as the chief master sergeant of the Air Force from August 1990 to October 1994. He agreed setting a good example is vital to good leadership.
“You manage things and you lead people,” he said. “You do that by being up front, honest, sincere and visible. I’ve always felt strongly that you can’t ask somebody to do something that either you won’t do, or that you haven’t done someplace along the line before. It’s not ‘do as I say, not as I do’ -- it just doesn’t work that way.”
Quality of Airmen
Retired Chief Master Sgt. James Binnicker served as chief master sergeant of the Air Force from July 1986 to July 1990. He said he’s very proud of the Airmen he sees serving today.
“It’s safe to say (Airmen today) are more informed thanks to technology,” he said. “They are more motivated and it just never ceases to amaze me when I go down to basic training and see the look on their faces (as they graduate.)”
He said the motivation and commitment of Airmen coming out of basic training hasn’t changed over the years.
“When I was a chief, I had a friend who was also a chief, and one day he called me about his daughter who was attending basic training,” he said. “My friend was concerned about her because at home she was always a klutz and he couldn’t see her in uniform. So, I went down to basic training and met up with her -- with her not knowing her father contacted me.
“And afterward, I called her father again,” he said. “I asked him to describe his daughter again, to make sure I had the right girl. He did, and it sounded about right, but I told him I didn’t see a klutz. What I saw was a young woman with a shiny face, bright eyes and oh, by the way, she had a rope on her uniform, which is a sign of leadership. So, I think even parents sometimes sell their kids short, and it’s the experience of basic training that brings it out and they come into the Air Force looking for leadership.”
Air Force culture
“I’m looking back at 63 years since I enlisted in the Army Air Corps,” said retired Chief Master Sgt. Paul Airey, who served as the first chief master sergeant of the Air Force from April 1967 to July 1969.
“It is impossible to compare the Army Air Corps of yesteryear to the Air Force of today. So when we talk about culture and we talk about tradition and heritage, we do not have much tradition, but we are rich in heritage. And certainly the culture of the Air Force today is a far cry from what it was many, many years ago,” Chief Airey said.
Retired Chief Master Sgt. Sam Parish, who served as the eighth chief master sergeant from August 1983 to June 1986, agreed today’s Air Force culture is different and evolving.
“Changing a culture is not easy in any situation,” he said, “and the culture of the United States Air Force has undergone transformation in the ‘50s because of Korea, in the ‘60s because of Vietnam, in the '70s and '80s the (Berlin) Wall fell and the ‘90s was expeditionary. It’s a continuous cultural change. And there’s nothing about the United States Air Force today -- except the name, maybe -- that is the same as it was when I retired just a few short years ago.”
Past challenges and lessons learned
Chief Binnicker said the force-shaping going on in today’s Air Force is very similar to what he experienced during his time as chief master sergeant of the Air Force.
“(My time) was the beginning of the drawdown,” he said. “People think we are drawing down now, but 20 years ago, in 1986, that was the beginning of ‘We’re too big and we’ve got to get smaller.’ I don’t think we did it very smart back then, but we didn’t have many choices. We sort of gutted the senior airman corps and that left us with a ‘bathtub’ effect, it takes about seven years to grow a staff sergeant, so if you take that chunk out from the senior airman level, you are going to have that hole for a long time.”
He added that another issue he had to deal with was an inflated Airmen review process.
“We also took on the almost Herculean task of changing the APR to the EPR,” he said. “It was ugly to say the least, in trying to get the force to except a new performance program. I was convinced that we had to do it because it was very difficult to differentiate, with all these great airmen.
“Well, our problem was that we had so few mediocre people that it’s difficult to difference between excellence, but difference we must,” Chief Binnicker said. “We couldn’t because it was the same kind of reports. The records all looked alike. I would venture to say the EPR is as inflated as the old APR was 20 years ago, so maybe its time to take another look at it.”
More personal reflections on past chief master sergeants of the Air Force are available in the publication Generation of Chevrons, which is filled with a brief overview of enlisted Airmen history, as well as personal accounts and biographies from each of the chief master sergeants of the Air Force. It can be found in the publications section of the Web site, www.airforcehistory.hq.af.mil.