Airlift/Tanker Association Convention: Leveraging Our Legacy to Aggressively Forge Our Future


The 53rd annual Airlift/Tanker Association (A/TA) Convention Symposium and Technical Exposition was held October 28-31, 2021, in Orlando, FL. This year’s theme was “Leveraging Our Legacy to Aggressively Forge Our Future.” The main topic of conversation for the mobility Airmen in attendance, however, was Operation Allies Refuge (OAR), which was Air Mobility Command’s (AMC) recent record-breaking airlift out of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan.

In 17 short days in August, AMC grey tails provided the wings of salvation for 124,000 evacuees following the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The historic airlift was the focus of the final keynote event that featured a panel of speakers. The panel consisted of Maj Gen Daniel DeVoe, Commander of the 618th Air Operations Center, Scott Air Force Base (AFB), IL; Col Adrienne Williams, Commander of the 521st Air Mobility Operations Wing, Ramstein Air Base, Germany; Col Colin McClaskey, Deputy Commander of the 821st Contingency Response (CR) Group, Travis AFB, CA; Lt Col Susie Lonsberry, Commander of the 7th Airlift Squadron, McChord AFB, WA; and SMSgt Melanie Lamb, C-17 Maintenance Superintendent of the 8th Expeditionary Air Mobility Squadron, Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.

One question posed to the OAR panel by moderator Lt Gen Brian Robinson, Deputy Commander of AMC, was particularly interesting for the safety community. He asked, “Can you talk briefly from your operating perspective about how we communicated or managed risk?”

DeVoe replied, “Managing risk was particularly important in this scenario. I cannot stress enough just how dynamic and how rapidly changing the advance of the Taliban and the fall of the Afghan country was, and the deployment of our combat power, or the policy changes that drove how we could implement doing what you all do so very well.”

He remarked that, due to the extremely fast-paced ops tempo, difficult decisions had to be made by Airmen very quickly in many instances. He stressed that there was no disconnect between command and control; there simply was not enough time to seek guidance. At every echelon, spanning numerous time zones in multiple countries, “Everyone was constantly making outstanding decisions in a complex environment.”

Speaking frankly, DeVoe said, “Was it messy at times and chaotic? Was information flow and communication difficult at times? Yes, but that’s exactly why we do mission command, and we need to do it more because conditions are going to get harder in the future, but I am wholly confident based on the experience that we just went through, and I just witnessed, that our strongest component of that force, our people, are absolutely primed, ready, and capable for any challenge.”

Williams spoke regarding the risk of resiliency by stating, “Throughout the mobility command, whether we were maintainers, port dawgs, CR forces, the crews, or back at the 618th, we as a team took a great risk with our resiliency. After 20 years in Afghanistan, we brought it home to Al Udeid, to Ramstein, and now to the U.S. We brought it home with the understanding we were saving lives. Commanders talked a lot about the risk to our Airmen on the line.

When that first plane landed, that could have broken our aircrews out there, but instead, it gave them the needed power and resiliency to say this [mission] is bigger than us. We are going to keep moving forward.

To further support resiliency, Williams ensured there was a chaplain on the flight line at Ramstein, supporting Airmen by simply asking, “How are you doing?” and the reply often was, “We are doing great and, we are making this [mission] happen.”

McClaskey, Commander of the CR Force deployed to run airfield operations at Kabul, added, “Risk is in our lives every day. This week, we talked about lower risk or acceptable risk, but when you are there on the ground, [it] doesn’t matter if you are at Ramstein or a crew enroute, there’s risk. How do you access that and identify it?”

He stated that some factors make it challenging to recognize risk in ourselves, such as fatigue. One way to mitigate those risks is understanding your environment and the capabilities or limitations of those around you. McClaskey said, “For me, I was fortunate to have a 5,000-hour loadmaster out there I hadn’t met before, but he said, ‘Sir, go to bed’ … and he was right.” He added that the Airmen looked out for each other, watching for fatigue or any other factor that could affect sound decision-making as well as psychological or endurance risks.

Robinson closed out the question by stating, “There are countless stories that all of you and your peers and wingmen have. These are stories that need to be shared and reflected on in your squadrons. We have built our resiliency that is based on experiences our global mobility Airmen went through with this operation. I’m very proud to be on this team. I sleep well at night knowing this team is capable of doing what we have done and will do it again tomorrow.”