What I’m about to say applies to any VIP including civilians, and some of it will be tongue-in-cheek, but please try to see the underlying concept without taking offense.
Firstly, let me get a personal beef off my chest. In the year 2022, with all the talk of having good leadership principles, why are we using the term “VIP”? Or “RHIP” for that matter? We say that nobody is more important than the next person and yet we call some people “Very Important Persons.” And not only do we use the term, but we also physically behave like they are more important than others. And each military branch, and base, has official organizations which see to the needs of VIPs. It’s their only job and in the Air Force, it’s called the Protocol Office.
Now I’m sorta’ like the Farmers Insurance commercials because “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” So let me illustrate with a few true stories.
Early in my Air Force career, I worked in Transient Alert (TA). That’s the organization that handles military aircraft stopping in from other bases and from all branches. The entrance of the TA building, as viewed from the flightline, had a big rectangular section of red painted concrete that extended out to the ramp. Wanna’ guess what it was? Yep! A red carpet. All aircraft carrying VIPs were marshaled into that location so that the main door opened onto the Red Carpet. Anyone else got parked in the Back Forty and had to endure the elements of Wichita Falls Texas. Seems a tad pretentious, doesn’t it?
Another interesting thing about working TA was that we knew when a VIP was soon to arrive because of the number of Colonels from the base who showed up in the Operations area. The more Colonels, the higher the status of the incoming VIP. I once saw a Sabreliner (executive aircraft like a Learjet) come in and the Colonels were literally running to the aircraft before it was even shut down. It was some Three Star and one Colonel ended up running behind him carrying his golf clubs. Jump on YouTube and look for a Looney Tunes cartoon about two dogs named Spike and Chester. This is what that scene looked like. And if you’ve spent any time in the military or corporate worlds you have seen the same sort of behavior. Why do these VIPs allow it? I would be too embarrassed.
In another instance, a good friend of mine, a Master Sergeant Crew Chief was walking across the ramp pulling a small oil servicing cart for his F-16. We were an Air National Guard (ANG) unit on TDY (Temporary Duty) to an active duty AF base and it’s very common in ANG and AFRES to have MSgt Crew Chiefs, whereas in active duty they are long into managerial roles by that time. So this E-8 runs over to my buddy and starts jumping on him for pulling the oil cart. My buddy didn’t understand the problem with what he was doing wrong until the E-8 stated, “We don’t allow Master Sergeants to pull oil carts on the ramp. That’s airmen’s work. I’ll get you one to pull that. It just sets a bad example!” (By Airman he meant an E-1 through E-4). Of course, my buddy continued across the ramp pulling the offending oil cart behind him while our E-8 probably worked on popping a blood vessel. We sure can’t have junior airmen seeing senior NCOs doing real work! It will give the peasants bad ideas.
My last story centers around another DV visit. Distinguished Visitor is just another name for a VIP. This one happened to be a Two Star who was visiting Sheppard AFB. Now Sheppard is a very big training base with lots of different units and this guy was only going to be there for the afternoon. Nobody even knew what units he might visit but his main purpose was a meeting at the Base HQ. Two days before his visit we were directed to do a complete spit and shine of our whole training hangar and offices. Per directions from a particularly useless Captain, we were to strip and rewax all the linoleum floors. I was on the team to do that, and so we accomplished the task.
Then the Captain came in and asked if we had stripped and waxed under the lockers? I was confused because they sat flat on the floor and didn’t have legs. I was truthful and told him no. He then directed that we do the whole job again and this time to move all the lockers out of the room. I was stunned and asked him if he really thought that a Two Star was going to come into our locker room and ask us to move lockers to see if we had waxed under them? He went red in the face and told me to shut up and just do it. It probably didn’t help that I was an E-3 or E-4 at the time. Looking back, that interaction was prophetic of my whole Air Force career. Lol! Sometimes Army and Marines talk about having to paint the bottoms of border rocks on the parade field. People laugh about it, often thinking they are joking. They aren’t.
So where are you going with this Dave? Is it just a personal rant against VIPs? Nope, it’s not about me. It doesn’t impact me anymore. If you’ve read any of my other articles, you’ll see that my focus is nearly always on the troops and this one is no different.
Oh, just in case you don’t know, in the AF you are considered a DV if you are a General, CMSAF (Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force), Command Chief, someone in the upper civilian levels of the DoD, or an elected official. There are others but that’s the main list. So, if you are a VIP or DV then I would like you to think about a few things.
Firstly, stay home. This is one of the tongue-in-cheek statements so please hear me out. You have no idea about the turmoil and lost labor you are creating. Yes, I know it’s important to be seen out of the office but sometimes it’s management by walking around or an opportunity to view the kingdom. But do you know that everything comes to a screeching halt days before your planned arrival? Us minions are forced to do all sorts of non-AFSC related work to get ready for you. Heaven forbid that there’s trash in the can on the hangar floor! Or that Airman Bagodonutz has an oil stain on his pants. Or that the hangar ceiling beams haven’t been dusted. Now in all fairness, you may not realize that all this is happening behind the scenes, so that’s why I’m telling you. (Although I find it hard to believe that you didn’t know since you came up through the ranks)
But Dave, I don’t want everything coming to a screeching halt to prepare for my visit! Fair enough. Then give a direct order to the base to not do anything in preparation. If you arrive and it’s obviously been gone over with white gloves, have a chat with leadership and voice your displeasure.
You see, here’s the deal. The aircraft maintenance personnel are required to stop part of their primary jobs to clean above and beyond what’s normal and cleaning and organizing a hangar isn’t the same as the Finance Office. It just isn’t. The flying and maintenance schedules don’t get reduced for your visit and once you are gone then people need to catch back up. And it takes more days than the length of your visit to do that.
Let’s also consider this. You aren’t the only DV in the Air Force. Where am I going with that? Well, some bases get way more DVs than others and for some, it’s a continual stream. Imagine being in your office trying to get a project done but people keep coming in every fifteen minutes and interrupting? The bases you are visiting don’t get to close their doors with instructions to not be interrupted.
Perhaps if all the big wigs could get together and compare visit schedules to minimize the total visits? Or maybe just do unannounced visits? Lol! Yeah, I know the panic that would cause with Senior Officers and NCOs. But why? If you are running a good operation, then who cares if there’s a dirty rag on the shelf or the computer monitors are a tad dusty? Maybe those folks are working hard at accomplishing the important mission?
And since we are talking about missions and pulling people away for useless things, let’s chat about Elephant Walks. For those who don’t know, Elephant Walks are those pictures you see where a base “fires up” all their aircraft and puts them out on the runway for a photo op. And yes, I know that I will get all sorts of arguments in favor of these things. They are good for morale, good for PR, good for a show of force to our enemies, yadda, yadda, yadda.
The hard truth of the matter is that aircraft mechanics bear the lion’s share of the burden of these events, and they have become more prolific in recent years. These photo ops are not just a simple matter of the pilots coming out and starting the jets and taxiing to the runway for a quick snap of a few pics and then back to the parking spots. Ask the maintainers. It takes days, if not weeks, worth of work because leadership demands that every available aircraft be included in the photo. So Gru says jump and the Senior Minions tell the Junior Minions how high. Days of work are spent getting some of the hard broke aircraft back to where they can run and safely taxied. Aircraft currently undergoing inspection are pushed through faster. And it would not surprise me to find out that some of the aircraft in the back of the pictures were towed to the runway because they were hard broke and paneled up just for the photo op.
Is it just possible that Commanders are using Elephant Walks to impress their bosses, aka VIPs? Honestly, the morale thing may have a little credence to it but ask the majority of maintainers how they feel about them, especially during a time of short manning and long work hours. Show of force to our enemies? Really? You don’t think our enemies know our FMC rates already? How much would they need to pay someone to sit outside a base and log tail numbers every day as the jets took off?
No-notice Elephant Walks were somewhat valuable with the bomber and tanker force during the Cold War. It showed senior commanders if the numbers of available aircraft being reported matched reality. A no-notice Operational Readiness Inspection could also serve the same purpose. But in today’s Air Force they are all scheduled well in advance. Why? Just so that commanders can have all their ducks in a row well beforehand. Of course, an ORI (Operational Readiness Inspection) is only useful if it’s how you really fight a war. But that’s another article.
I guess then that my second point was, don’t allow the leadership below you to do things to impress you at the expense of their people, or the mission. Recognize dog-and-pony shows for what they are and shut them down. I’m in no way stating that folks shouldn’t have pride in their unit, but they should have pride in the way they are accomplishing the mission instead of how many awards were issued or how many volunteer projects in the community were completed.
One relatively recent event just highlighted my feelings on this. A particularly high-up enlisted VIP visited a unit for the purpose of honoring the aircraft maintenance team and thought it would honor them by having the ceremony in the hangar, rather than a base auditorium or theater. The whole hangar was cleared, and chairs and podium installed, with aircraft parked behind the open hangar doors on the ramp. I assume the intentions were honorable, but it had the opposite effect. I know because I talked to many of the maintainers afterward. It took days of work to prepare for and put them way behind on their regular jobs. Plus the fact that it was just another speech telling them about the great job they were doing and how Mother Air Force was listening to their concerns and would take action. They all knew that nothing would change.
So that’s my third point. Don’t use VIP visits in place of actually fixing things. You don’t need to visit to find out what’s wrong at a base or unit. If your subordinates aren’t telling you what’s going on, then you have surrounded yourself with the wrong people.
Let me close with a few final thoughts.
Let’s just say that you are attending an old buddy’s retirement or promotion ceremony. Are you aware that if you run your visit through the Protocol Office that there’s every possibility that Airman Bagodonutz will have to strip and wax the floor under the lockers in her shop?
Also, if nobody is more important than anyone else, why do we have reserved parking spots on base for certain ranks and positions? Convert them to open parking or reserved for disabled people or expectant moms. (Yes, I said moms) Is it really going to kill the Wing King to have to walk a few hundred feet to get to the Wing HQ building? What sort of leadership message would it send to convert your spot to the Airman of the quarter spot? Yeah, I left off the NCO/SNCO of the Quarter. We need the exercise.
And base leadership, please back off the sucking up to VIPs. We can see when you are doing a Chester and Spike and truthfully, it causes you to lose credibility with your troops. You’ll stop the sucking up if you really care about your people like you say you do.
Finally, VIPs, please just consider how your visits impact people trying to get a difficult job done. Maybe just stay home? Please? We have sorties to generate….
Dave holds a Master of Aeronautical Science in Aviation Management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and currently owns Jet Fix Training. He is also a retired CMSgt, having served 4 years on active duty in the USAF and another 34 years in the Air National Guard. Dave has held a wide variety of technical, instructor, consultant, and leadership positions in his more than 40 years of civilian and military aviation. experience.