Retired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen Ronald Fogleman Talks About Life and Leadership


“When I was in high school, I got into a little bit of trouble and ended up in a situation where I had to report [to authorities]. In rural Appalachia, we didn’t have a probation officer, so I had to report to the district attorney a couple of times a month,” said retired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen Ronald Fogleman in a recent interview for The Mobility Forum.

It was 1958, and, as he waited for a meeting with the small-town attorney, Fogleman noticed a bronze star citation from World War II hanging on the wall. When the war veteran appeared, he asked Fogleman if he had ever thought of military life before and said, “They’ve got this new place out in Colorado called the Air Force Academy, and our congressman owes us a favor.”

Although the conversation was brief, it changed the entire course of young Fogleman’s life. He applied to the Academy, was notified of his accep­tance in May, and reported in June.

“My family didn’t have the money to get me out there, so my grandfather, who was a retired railroader, took me to Denver on a railroad pass. My grandfather had only one experience with the military. In August of ’41, he sent his youngest son off to the Air Corps, and my uncle was in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked on the 8th of December. He was a B-17 crew member when the aircraft was destroyed by the Japanese, and he died in a POW camp in 1942,” he said.

No doubt, the loss of a loved one in battle weighed heavily during the bittersweet parting in Denver. From there, he took a bus to the Academy to begin a long, prestigious career. Although he had made mistakes in his youth, he rose to lead the entire Air Force, an excellent role model and a shining ray of hope for those who come to the service from humble or imperfect beginnings.

During the Vietnam War, he served two tours, flying 315 combat missions and logging 806 hours of combat fighter time. As a Misty FAC (forward air controller), he was part of a tactical fighter squadron that flew F-100F FACs low over hostile territory searching for enemy targets. Due to the extremely dangerous missions, more than 30 Misty planes were shot down. He said, “I was shot down while flying a close air support mission out of Biên Hòa. As a Misty, we got to do some interesting things flying over North Vietnam and Laos. The problem there was trying to stop what was flowing south from North Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.”

After the war, the band of brothers remained close, and, in February of 1992, Fogleman got a call from a fellow Misty, the then Air Force Chief of Staff Gen Tony McPeak. He said, “Congratulations, Fogleman, you’re going to be a four-star. You are going to Scott [Air Force Base, IL], and you are going to be Commander in Chief of U.S. Transportation Command [USTRANSCOM] and Commander of Air Mobility Command [AMC].”

“It was kind of a shock to everybody that a fighter pilot was being parachuted in to take command at Scott,” Fogleman said.

He proved to be the perfect man to build AMC from the ground up as the entire Air Force underwent an organizational, operational, and fundamental renovation to meet the defense demands of the post-Cold War era. Pioneering leaders outlined the way forward for the command in a document called Global Reach, Global Power.

“In the past, MAC [Mobility Air Command] had all the airlift, but they didn’t have the tankers. With the new structure, the tankers came. We started building with tankers and airlift at a time in which the country was looking at becoming a CONUS [continental United States]-based contingency— meaning, we are going to have fewer people stationed overseas, and, in order to respond to a contingency, you are going to need AMC. Without it, the national defense plan would not work.”

As a fighter pilot who had refueled three or four times a day to complete demanding missions during conflict, he fully understood the importance of tankers. He was unversed, however, in the behind-the-scenes operations that enabled the fuel stations to appear magically in the sky when needed, as well as the elements of worldwide airlift operations. Therefore, he called on the best in the business when being schooled on the operations and extending the technology and capabilities of the Tanker Airlift Control Center (TACC). Gen John Handy and Gen Walt Cross (both of whom went on to serve as the Commander of USTRANSCOM and Air Mobility Command [AMC]) took what AMC inherited following the Gulf War and modernized TACC to contend on a global scale.

As a dual-hat commander, Fogleman had the task of introducing the C-17 to the powerful Air Force fleet. There were problems meeting milestones, however, due to several difficulties and delays. One issue, in particular, was the certification for parachuting because the Army parachute test team had refused to jump from the new aircraft due to experiencing occasional tears in their chutes during the test. After speaking with leading experts from within the command and confirming that the issue was not out of the ordinary, Fogleman got the VII Airborne Corps Commander on the phone. Fogleman told him that there was nothing wrong with the aircraft and the failure to complete the parachute test was putting the entire C-17 program at risk. The VII Airborne Corps Commander agreed with Fogleman’s assessment but stated that, because it was a perceived safety issue, he could not order the test team to jump if they thought it was unsafe. Fogleman then proposed that he and the Corps Commander jump out of the aircraft to demonstrate their belief that it was safe. After getting recurrent at Fort Bragg, Fogleman and the Corps Commander flew to Edwards Air Force Base, CA, and led the test team in a jump from the aircraft. After the jump, the Corps Commander called the test team together and explained that the Army had changed the parachute manufacturer and they were seeing the small tears in some chutes in all their operations. The leader’s actions had more impact on the C-17 program than anything that could have been said in a speech or have written in a commander’s message.

Fogleman was well known for his four pass or fail rules for which he held the commanders accountable:

  1. No rule through fear: Never act as a tyrant, threat, or try to exercise power over people because it creates a climate that is not conducive to participation. Have respect for others, and they will foster new ideas.
  2. Never lose your temper in public: Leaders need to be calm, cool, and collected in a crisis. Self-discipline is a prerequisite to command a squadron.
  3. Never tolerate any breach of integrity: When Airmen swear to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, it means that lives will be put on the line if need be. It is an oath with an unlimited liability clause.
  4. Zero tolerance for any kind of sexual harassment, or any kind of prejudice based on race, religion, ethnic origin, or age: If an individual is denigrated, then they do not reach full potential, which means no one reaches full potential. Collectively, there is no growth.

“They were simple, and I held people to it,” he said.

As Chief of Staff, he introduced the Air Force Core Values: Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do. Today, the timeless and enduring values still epitomize the profession at every level. Fogleman stood firmly dedicated to each value until he retired in the summer of 1997 after 34 years in the Air Force.

When asked if he had words of wisdom for the next generation of leaders, he said, “I used to tell the troops, ‘Look, you don’t have to have stars or bars on your shoulders to be a leader. You can start at any level. Being a leader is a state of mind. The essence of leadership is to understand your vision and role. The troops will forgive nearly anything in a leader, except the failure to lead.’”