For Warrior Wednesday, we have decided to introduce you to another very good friend of ours. We’ve known Colonel Robert Novotny for a number of years, stemming back to his time as the commander of the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group at Nellis Air Force Base. He’s been instrumental in helping us research various topics and has offered an insider’s perspective on some tough subjects. Most of all, he epitomizes true leadership from a “Follow Me” perspective, and sets a fantastic example for the airmen under his command. He consistently puts the wants and needs of his airmen first, and more than once we have seen him working alongside his most junior enlisted personnel, his sleeves rolled up, working hard to accomplish a goal.
Colonel Novotny is the current commander of the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, England–the “Liberty Wing.” Novotny oversees nearly 5,000 active duty personnel, more than 2,000 British and American civilian employees and contractors, as well as a geographically-separated unit at nearby RAF Feltwell.
The wing employs three combat-ready squadrons of Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle (Dark Gray) and F-15C Eagle (Light Gray) fighter aircraft, as well as a Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) squadron flying Sikorsky HH-60G PAVE Hawk helicopters.
“Blend’r,” as he is known to his fellow fighter pilots, was commissioned in 1992 after graduating from The Zoo. He attended UPT at Laughlin Air Force Base, near Del Rio, Texas. Thus far in his career, he’s completed five operational F-15 assignments and acquired a great deal of combat experience, as well as extensive background in the Operational Test world.
Blend’r has been an action officer at a Major Command, a fighter squadron commander, and the 53rd TEG commander. He is also a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, the Naval Command & Staff College, the School of Advanced Air & Space Studies, and the National War College.
Colonel Novotny is a command pilot with 2,500 flight hours in 11 different aircraft, primarily in the F-15C/D/E, and more than 540 combat hours. Prior to his current assignment, he served as the Chief of Staff for the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force and the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, Deputy Commander for Air, in Kabul, Afghanistan.
FS: If you could select one way you try to lead by example over all others, what would it be?
I really try to be approachable and “down to earth,” I guess. I get some decent feedback that I can put the Airmen at ease when we’re together, and that leads to open and honest conversations about challenges, priorities and so on. I also try to “connect the dots” for our youngest Airmen because I believe that gives them “buy-in” for what we’re doing in the Wing. It seems to be working.
FS: Favorite memory (you can talk about) in the Light Grey? Dark Grey?
My favorite memory was a Weapons Instructor Course ride. I was on my DACT-5X ride (8 v 20 DCA on the Northern Ranges). I had busted the day prior and was on an X-ride with 7 WIC IPs. We absolutely “slayed” that day. So much so that we spent the last 5 minutes of the Vul period in an 8-ship CAP. We also brought both 4-ships up initial which was a rare event after a DACT ride. Some of my IPs are now flag officers like Maj Gen Jeffrey “Cobra” Harrigian. At the end of the shot evaluation, the F-16 pilot who was “Red 1” came up and said he was glad we were all on the same team because of how well we did as an Eagle 8-ship. It was an incredibly cool compliment from a fellow fighter pilot, and it validated all of our hard work. That was a good ride…not the perfect ride, but damn close.
FS: What has been your most rewarding assignment thus far? Why?
The one I’m in right now is my best assignment yet…and by far the most frustrating as well. I love being able to help move obstacles out of the way of our Airmen. It is amazing what the Liberty Airmen can do with a tiny bit of motivation and the right tools. We have nearly 1,000 Airmen deployed right now! That’s 23-24% of the whole base. We are taking the fight to the enemy on multiple fronts, getting ready for the F-35, transitioning to a new mission and tackling a host of other issues. At every turn, the Airmen here crush it! I can’t believe it some days, and it’s why I keep coming back, even after a bad day. I do still fly, but we all know that a Wing Commander’s job is not about his personal sortie look-back. I barely meet the minimums, and that’s okay. My whole goal is to leave the wing a little better than I got it. I tell my commanders, ‘We don’t need to score a touchdown, we just need to move the chains.’ So far so good…but we have more work to come.
FS: Do you feel that current squadron/wing leadership is empowered enough by USAF leadership to make positive changes to improve morale of LPA bros and/or enlisted troops without fear of reprimand?
That’s a much more challenging answer than just a yes or no. I hope your readership will stay with me on this one. The answer is Yes and No. I find many squadron and wing leaders fail to capitalize on their own power to make change. Some new leaders are waiting to be told it’s “okay” to do something or stop doing something and, as a result, nothing ever happens. If you’re a lieutenant colonel squadron commander, you better get out there and lead your unit. Leaders need to move out and lead and not wait for some “empowerment” moment from USAF leadership…it’s already happened when they put you in command. To that end, I do feel that squadron and wing leaders are empowered to make some positive changes if they take the reins of leadership and move out. There are things we’re doing right now at RAF Lakenheath that are working…we’ve killed meetings, moved away the queep, focused on flying, flying and flying. We’re leading the entire USAF on our flying hour program execution…not chasing numbers, but giving the OG the tools to execute their training plan.
The answer to the second half of this question is less optimistic. I can’t slow down the OPSTEMPO–that’s a COCOM thing. I can’t fix the DoD or federally-mandated training that schools the many for the wrongdoings of the few. I get very frustrated with trying to make improvements to the installation but I don’t have either the funds or the permissions to make improvements. Despite those obstacles, I still come to work with my game face on and try to push through the ridiculousness.
If I can talk about fear of reprimand for a moment, I want to tell folks that if you’re afraid to make a change or don’t try to improve the situation, we need you to leave the Air Force. Go. Right now. I hear some folks talk about this around the fighter community. “If I do X, I’ll get fired.” Well, if you’re afraid of getting fired, you’re useless. I know there are some folks who are saying, “Yeah right, Blend’r, you’re a company man, you’ve made it to Wing Command, this is easy for you to say.” Well, BS. If you are focused on the mission and aggressively trying to get it done…and…you are taking care of your folks…and you believe in your heart that what you are doing is right for the organization, the mission and the Airmen, then do it! If the service squashes you, then maybe the service wasn’t what you thought it was. Being afraid to make a decision is far worse than making a wrong decision, in my opinion.
FS: Is there an airspace that you enjoy flying in more than any other?
Put on the spot, I have to say the Northern Ranges at Nellis. First, you can almost always count on good weather and great visibility. Second, the ranges have the fewest restrictions vis-à-vis expendables, speed and so on. Finally, now that I’m flying the Strike Eagle in England, I would love to see the target laydown in Vegas…without having to wear a poopie suit! Alaska is a close second, and you can’t discount the low-fly structure in Scotland and Wales…those areas are unbelievable!
FS: We know that you try to remember and honor all fallen brothers, but if you could speak to one, what would you say?
Col Mike “Bam Bam” Stapleton was a great fighter pilot. He was an instructor of mine at WIC, and we always stayed in touch after that. When I was in OIF and he was working for Gen Jumper, we had lots of back-and-forth emails about how the fight was going from the “bro level.” Bam Bam was a gregarious, passionate and motivating leader. He was a advocate of fighter aviation and the culture of the fighter pilot. I would simply say “thanks” for leading so well, and hopefully we can carry forward his legacy.
FS: From your perspective, what are the biggest challenges facing tactical aviation and the USAF as a whole?
Our fighter aviator manning and the second- and third-order effects that we don’t yet understand. We are in the early stages of a massive demand signal from the major airlines, and with the FAA rule changes requiring 1,500 hours and an ATP, military fighter pilots are the solution to their problems. Couple that with our insatiable OPSTEMPO, and I am concerned about our future. We’re hearing predictions that in 2018, there will be no fighter pilots on the staff. While most of us would prefer to fly versus be on the staff, the truth is, we need fighter folks making fighter-fleet decisions on the staff. Weapons procurement, manning, upgrades and other crucial staff decisions regarding fighter aviation will fall to those without the first-hand knowledge of fighter aviation. I’ve asked my OG/CC here to look at who’s available for the new aviator career incentive pay (“the bonus”). I’m trying to get a feel for who’s going to take the bonus, who’s on the fence and who’s likely to separate. It’s a fact that many of our folks are very tired of deploying in what appears to be a never-ending fight in the Middle East. This ties directly to your question about morale…
FS: What are some of your short-term goals? Long-term?
Short-term is to get my son off to college on the right foot. I also want to try and travel a bit this summer with some friends around the UK and finish my next upgrade (you know how hard it is to teach an old dog new tricks?). Long-term…whew…I used to have some long-term goals, but I’m reassessing those all the time. If I could provide three years of stability for my daughter to get through high school, I think Dawn (my wife) and I could handle anything after that.
FS: What excites you the most about your current assignment?
The opportunity to try and fix things locally. I’m not trying to create new programs to fix stuff, I’m trying to delete programs that someone felt were useful back when we had 25,000 extra Airmen hanging around. I like breaking through bureaucratic barriers that prevent our Liberty Airmen from getting the mission done.
FS: Who inspires you in your daily life?
Dawn is awesome. My “frau,” as we say in the business. She’s carried our family these 20+ years. Our kids are doing great because of her, and she is still rocking it in the O Club on Friday nights. I’m a lucky dude that she married me. I can’t believe how much we ask of our spouses, and they deliver. It comes at a cost for sure, and that’s a problem were facing right now. This never-ending conflict in the Middle East is taking a toll on our families. I don’t think it’s sustainable, and we’ve already seen the fractures develop (bonus take-rates, suicides, divorces…). If you can stick this out, you’ve got an amazing family.
FS: Did you ever envision yourself being Wing Commander of the 48FW, or any FW for that matter?
I think after Group Command I felt confident that I could give Wing Command a shot. I have had great Wing Commanders in the past…ET Williams, Cruiser Wilsbach and Trashman Hicks. They were awesome mentors and role models. Along the way they’ve been very encouraging. As far as the Liberty Wing? This is a dream come true. One base, one boss. No other folks on my installation except the BX, DODDS and the commissary (no MAJCOMs, centers…). We have 81 jets and a ton of amazing Airmen. I love this job…best Wing Command I could have ever hoped for!
FS: What’s one feature, piece of tech, or upgrade that you’d like to see fitted to the Strike Eagle or Light Gray?
We need that APG-82 and the AIM-9X in the Strike Eagle right now. I’d also like to see us get a second helmet for the WSO, or the Scorpion possibly. The Air-to-Ground functionality of the helmet is a great feature that could really help the WSO in certain cases. For the Light Gray…a new 50% switch! Ha!
FS: Where do you see the 493FS looking forward, even with the looming threat of their jets going away. Will they continue to play an important role in providing security for NATO partners?
This will be a tough topic for the coming years. We think we have them funded through 2017 with the European Reassurance Initiative money and I know SHAPE and USAFE would like them to stay a bit longer. The F-15C provides a great response capability without the fear of escalating tensions in the region. Plus, regardless of what fancy air-to-air jet you’re flying in Europe, the Eagle will still dominate you.
FighterSweep would like to thank Captain Emily Grabowski of 48th Fighter Wing Public Affairs for facilitating this interview, and certainly Colonel Robert Novotny for his time and attention. We are always honored by the opportunity to help someone else tell their story, and it’s very humbling to have access to the caliber of people we do.
We Are Liberty!