July 1, 2015 (by MSgt. Latisha Cole) - Ninth Air Force commander Maj. Gen. H. D. Polumbo Jr., a fighter pilot for 34 years and a combat veteran of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, took his final flight in an F-16 Fighting Falcon last week as he nears the end of a long and distinguished Air Force career.
Maj. Gen. H.D. Polumbo Jr., Ninth Air Force commander, jokes with the pilots who accompanied him on his final flight at Shaw AFB on June 26th, 2015. The final flight, also known as the fini-flight, is a ceremonial flight for pilots to bid the departing Airman farewell. [USAF photo by SrA. Diana M. Cossaboom]
Polumbo has served as the commander of the Ninth Air Force for the past two years and is scheduled to relinquish command and retire next month.
"I'm proud to have flown the Lockheed Martin F-16 for so many years," Polumbo said. "I've flown all blocks and engines over the years, from Block 5s at MacDill in the early '80s to Block 50s and 52s here in South Carolina, and Block 60s in Afghanistan with the Emiratis. It's a fantastic jet and has really evolved over the decades - but the Viper has always been a dream to fly."
What's unique about the F-16, or the "Viper" as it is known to those who fly it, as opposed to heavy aircraft or even other two-seat fighters, is that the pilot is alone in the cockpit. One man and one engine. Yet the pilot recognizes that it takes many people providing support behind the scenes to get him in the air.
"I want to thank all the dedicated aircraft maintenance personnel, logisticians, medical professionals, air traffic controllers, weather men and women, and Operations Support Airmen who helped me fly safely all over the world, all through the years," Polumbo said. "Without these great Airmen, the mission of the U.S. Air Force would be impossible to accomplish."
One of the key individuals who support the flying mission is the Dedicated Crew Chief, the general said.
It takes initiative, a high level of technical expertise, management skills and leadership abilities to be a good DCC. The crew chief is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the aircraft, and the "flagship" DCC - that is, the crew chief responsible for the commander's jet - must exemplify something extra that separates him or her from the group of highly skilled technicians.
"The flagship jet is held to a much higher standard than any other aircraft, and when you're the DCC of that aircraft, you're held to a much higher standard than a DCC of any other regular aircraft," said Staff Sgt. Nathaniel Hall, 55th Aircraft Maintenance Unit DCC. "I was picked by the previous flagship DCC. I was still fairly new here, but I guess he saw how I performed, my experience, and how I maintained the other jets. Whether I was the DCC of that specific aircraft or not, I was willing to work and put the time in."
Hall has been a DCC for nearly four years and was selected as Polumbo's DCC in February. He puts a lot of pride and dedication in his work and is accustomed to building a special relationship with his pilots, he said.
"When I first met General Polumbo, he told me, 'Don't make it a red carpet event. I'm just another pilot. Don't do anything special for me. Just put me in a good jet, and I will see you when I get back,'" Hall said. "It's nice to be able to talk to him like a normal person and be able to relate with him. From my experience, the maintainer and pilot bond is pretty sacred because we're the last human contact they have when they take off and the first when they come back. That's something pretty profound."
Hall and his assistant DCC, Airman 1st Class Jamie Ince, agree that being entrusted with someone's life adds pressure to the job, but they are prepared to handle it.
"It does put a level of stress on us, but we're all trained in this job and we all know what we're doing," Ince added.
Polumbo recognized Hall and Ince after his fini-flight for the great support they've provided him by presenting them his commander's coin for excellence.
"It's Airmen like these that make our Air Force the absolute best in the world," the general said.
The last few weeks of his flying career leading up to the fini flight have been a time to remember, Polumbo said.
"I went Mach 2.0 off the coast of South Carolina in an F-16 and then climbed to 72,000 feet in a U-2S off the coast of northern California the week before," he said. "I flew a fully acrobatic glider at the Air Force Academy with a cadet instructor pilot and then did Air Combat Training against an F-22 off the coast of Georgia followed by Basic Fighter Maneuvers in the F-22 simulator in Virginia. It was a dream month for me as an Air Force pilot."