By Jeff Mullin, Senior Writer
Enid News and Eagle
Col. Darren James outlined three areas of focus for Vance Air Force Base after taking command of 71st Flying Training Wing during a ceremony Wednesday morning on base.
“Our focus areas will be mission, people and fun,” said James, the 35th commander in the history of the 71st FTW.
Vance’s mission, he said “doesn’t change,” with the change in leadership.
“We will be here to develop professional airmen, to deliver world-class joint pilots and deploy warriors to the combat zone,” he said.
Looking to the future, James said one challenge facing Vance will be looming defense budget cuts.
“Obviously we have a huge challenge as far as our fiscal times go,” James said. “Despite the constraints, we must continue to look at ways that we can safely and effectively train our future leaders.”
Vance’s people, James said, are responsible for the base’s success.
“Our success relies on our ability to be productive on a daily basis,” he said. “We’re uniquely reliant upon our folks, day in and day out, as we support, generate and fly missions out of this base.
“We’ll work to strike a balance between the mission, the individual and families as our success requires the synchronized efforts of all those folks.”
James also said he expects the men and women of Vance to have fun while they work to accomplish the base’s mission.
“I’m extremely serious about the mission that we have here, but I desperately seek reasons to laugh and smile every day,” he said. “So I ask that you come to work with that same enthusiasm.”
This is James’ third stint at Vance. He served as a T-37 instructor pilot from February 1996 to March 1997, and as a T-1 instructor from August 1997 to February 1998. He said he and his wife, Melissa, son, Ryan, 18, and daughter, McKenna, 15, are happy to be back in Enid.
“Melissa and the kids and I couldn’t be happier to return here to a place where we definitely called home,” James said.
James cited the strong partnership between the community and the base.
“I am inspired by our mission, I am inspired by our people, I am inspired by our community partners,” James said.
That sentiment was echoed by outgoing wing commander Col. Russ Mack, who has been assigned to the Pentagon, during his emotional farewell. He recognized Enid Mayor Bill Shewey, city commissioners, Vance Development Authority and Vance’s Partners in the Sky for their continued support of the base.
“You guys are second to none,” Mack said. “You make Enid a home for our military members. We’ve been doing this for 71 years, and God willing, we’re going to do this for 71 more.”
Maj. Gen. Mark Solo, commander of 19th Air Force, the numbered air force of which Vance is a part, presided over the ceremony and listed the 71st FTW’s accomplishments during Mack’s time as commander. Those included more than 120,000 sorties and 160,000 flying hours over the past two years, during which time the wing trained more than 800 pilots. Vance also deployed more than 240 members during that time and its airmen received 46 awards from higher headquarters. During the 2011 AETC compliance inspection, the wing’s emergency management exercise response earned an excellent rating, and was lauded by the inspector general as “The best seen in 20 years.”
During Mack’s tenure, Vance also surpassed an Air Education and Training Command record of one million flying hours without the loss of an aircraft or a loss of life, spanning 12 years.
“When you look at Vance’s accomplishments since Col. Mack’s arrival in May of 2010, it’s apparent that Russ Mack and his team have been operating at full speed since day one,” said Solo, before presenting Mack with the Legion of Merit award.
Mack deflected credit for Vance’s accomplishments during his tenure to the men and women of the 71st Flying Training Wing.
“You guys have made that happen,” he said. “All those great things that were just said, that’s you, that’s not Russ Mack, that’s the 71st Flying Training Wing. You’ve made my job easy and you’ve done everything in spades.”
Solo called Wednesday’s ceremony, “bittersweet,” and said it was a special change of command for him, “Because I feel like these are some of my kids who are moving on.” Solo first met Mack and his wife, Lynne, at the AETC squadron commander mentorship class. He met James and his wife when they served together at Dover AFB, Del.
“He (James) returns to Oklahoma with terrific credentials and is well-qualified to lead this wing,” Solo said.