MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kansas -- Air Force Reserve recruiters from across the central United States converged on McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, in April for a unique immersion to learn all about the 931st Air Refueling Wing, the KC-46 Pegasus and the Wichita area first-hand.
Armed with what they learned, the recruiters assigned to the 352nd Recruiting Squadron went back to work in a better position to help the 931st meet its manning challenges.
“The visit from the 352nd recruiters marks just the beginning of our massive efforts to field the latest Air Force weapon system, the KC-46 Pegasus,” said Col. Phil Heseltine, 931st ARW commander. “With more than 300 vacancies, we could not meet our conversion demands without their support.”
The colonel said his entire team was extremely impressed by the support they received from the 352nd RCS.
“I can’t overstate the impact it had to bring them to McConnell AFB, and engage directly with our Wichita and Derby city leaders, Mayor Whipple and Mayor White, as well as seeing first-hand what an amazing place McConnell is for our Reserve Citizen Airmen to both live and serve,” he said. “Partnered with our active duty and Air National Guard wing leaders, Col. Rich Tanner, (22nd ARW commander), and Col. Jason Knobbe, (184th Wing commander), our 931st ARW team put on a world-class event that I believe should be the model for other locations to emulate. Each recruiter left knowing what an Air Force crown jewel we have at McConnell Air Force Base.”
“Never underestimate the power of personal one-on-one connections,” said Lt. Col. Michael Rigoni, 352nd RCS commander. “Although we’ve been given tremendous IT (information technology) capability over the course of the last year, it doesn’t match having the power to speak eye-to-eye with another person, make a special connection, see an aircraft or training facility up close, or appreciate how incredible and complex in-flight refueling is at 20,000 feet. We collectively gained an entirely new level of appreciation for what the 931st ARW and Wichita, Kansas, have to offer, having had the opportunity to meet city leaders, tour, stay and eat in the downtown area, and getting to experience the kindness and hospitality of Reserve Citizen Airmen and the local Kansas natives.”
Lt. Col. Matt Basler, 931st Mission Support Group director, served as the lead planner and focal point for this event. As the 931st ARW is in full conversion to the KC-46, the unit is growing by leaps and bounds.
“Roughly nine months ago, our leadership team recognized that we would need more Airmen to fulfill our mission. During a site visit with Lt. Col. Rigoni and Senior Master Sgt. Cole Chamberlain (the senior recruiter at McConnell), the three of us were discussing the unique jobs we had to offer – including boom operators,” Basler said. “As it was somewhat difficult to describe exactly what boom operators did, I recommended that Lt. Col. Rigoni and his team simply come out during a UTA and see it for themselves.”
From that point forward over the next several months, the two organizations had several conversations about how they could work together to increase mission readiness across the 931st ARW and ensure the KC-46 was primed for rapid global mobility – if given the call.
“This evolved into the opportunity for the 931st ARW to show his team firsthand what other jobs there were and where we were having difficulty in filling vacancies,” Basler said. “Most importantly, the event allowed us the opportunity to grow our relationship with the 352nd Recruiting Squadron – one we want to foster for years to come.”
“The recruiting event was extremely valuable to the 931st ARW as we have a high number vacancies in the wing, particularly the maintenance group,” said Col. Robert Thompson, 931st Maintenance Group commander. “After meeting with the recruiting team, it was apparent that many of them gained a greater understanding of our requirements and greater understanding and appreciation for the work environment here at McConnell.”
Currently the 931st MXG has more than 90 vacancies for crew chiefs. Additionally, there are approximately 25 vacancies between two KC-46 avionics career fields, communication/navigation and integrated flight control system/guidance and control. They also have more than 15 vacancies in KC-46 aircraft hydraulic systems, and 10 vacancies in aircraft electrical/environmental control systems career field.
Thompson said the vacancies are primarily traditional Reserve positions, but there are opportunities to serve as an Air Reserve Technician.
“With the advent of the new weapon system, there are more than 300 newly added positions to support our expanding mission,” Heseltine said. “Everything from pilots to boom operators, to maintenance and mission support specialists.”
The 931st ARW is also experiencing significant growth in its security forces and civil engineering units.
“By flying with us, our recruiters can now speak from personal experience what an amazing capability the KC-46 brings and are ready to take this back to the next engagements with prospective Air Force recruits,” Heseltine said.
“This is the first time in the 12 years I have been in recruiting that I have seen something like this happen,” Chamberlain said. “This not only raised morale for the recruiters, I think it also raised morale for some of the Reservists who were able to show off what they get to do every day. For the recruiters, I believe it was an event that re-blued them. It’s not every day we get to see the end result of placing that new Airman in the wing.”
For the recruiters who came from throughout the squadron this was a great opportunity to learn about the mission of the 931st ARW and see the needs they have in recruiting. It was also a chance to reconnect.
“This was a TDY I will never forget. It felt like we were in 2019 again and a breath of fresh air getting to see our fellow recruiters in person again,” said Senior Master Sgt. Melissa Melichar, 352nd RCS trainer. “Sometimes you can become so engulfed in work that you miss out on building relationships with other people. Our recruiters in the field need each other for mental support, to bounce ideas off of and share laughs with. The feedback I received from the other recruiters is that this was probably the best TDY they’ve had in recruiting.”
For the recruiters coming from other locations, getting the first-hand knowledge about the 931st ARW and the new KC-46 was invaluable.
“Recruiters come from different types of military experiences and backgrounds. Typically, recruiters have a general knowledge of most Air Force career fields. We may also have friends in various career fields and can extract the experiences they have shared with us during our conversations with applicants,” said Senior Master Sgt. Robert Thames, Team Whiteman Recruiting Flight Chief. “But there is no replacement for gaining first-hand insight of the missions you support as a recruiter. By visiting each unit in person and talking with personnel at different levels, you’re able to get key information about how they operate during the UTA; what the work-center looks like; and potentially seeing them in action, performing their respective job.”
For recruiters it’s about establishing a network with the units in order to provide the best customer service to potential applicants.
“My experience at the event was great because it gave me a chance to understand the 931st ARW mission as well as the importance to help fill those vacancies due to what they have been tasked on the KC-46,” said Staff Sgt. Marcus Walker, a line recruiter at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. “Seeing the fleet of aircraft on the flight line, touring the different shops and seeing exactly what they do explained how all the jobs are connected and impacted to sustain mission capability. I don’t have a maintenance background, so seeing everything in person helps, especially allowing us to provide examples I can use when job counseling with new applicants.”
Event organizers also took advantage of the immersion to educate local ROTC cadets from Kansas State University Detachment 270 on the 931st mission.
“Several months ago, we learned that the active duty is not planning to commission as many officers as they originally programmed for,” Basler said. “This left many eager and passionate individuals who wanted to serve their country unsure of their future. Once we learned that there was a program to allow ROTC cadets to commission directly into the Air Force Reserve, our wing commander saw an amazing opportunity to give these cadets hope.”
Seeing the opportunity to share with the cadets about opportunities to serve in the Air Force Reserve, the 931st ARW leadership and recruiting set up a visit for 37 cadets from KSU.
“We worked closely with Detachment 270th’s commander, Lt. Col. Garrett Hogan, to plan an event that would give cadets information on how they could still pursue their dreams in the Air Force,” Basler said. “What many people do not know is that the Air Force Reserve offers so many opportunities to young individuals – we simply needed to convey that information to the right crowd.”
While visiting McConnell several of the cadets expressed interest in joining the Reserve in an enlisted career field, as this would allow them to stay in the local area and still serve.
“Many AFROTC programs are unaware of the opportunities to be able to serve their country and stay somewhat close to home, while building a career in the civilian sector,” Chamberlain said. “I believe the Air Force Reserve is a hidden gem that if introduced to the opportunities, many cadets would be interested in. This is definitely something that can be introduced to other universities and potentially even through virtual meetings.”
Recruiting events like these take lots of planning and cooperation from several partners, Team McConnell and the local community, who all took a role in being part of this event. As a classically associated unit, the 931st Air Refueling Wing stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the active duty’s 22nd Air Refueling Wing.
“While it is true that rapid global mobility is dependent on the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, it is not an overstatement to say we could not do our mission here at McConnell without the support of the 22nd,” Heseltine said. “With the conversion of the 931st, many of the mission sets and capabilities this weapon system brings integrates well with the mission of our Kansas National Guard partners in the 184th Wing. From data link to tactics development, we will grow the KC-46’s mission capability through a unified three-wing effort.”
As all three units work as a Total Force partnership on the mission, they actually help one another on manning.
“We also have the luxury of bringing folks from both the active duty and our Air National Guard partners over to the Reserve via a virtual three-way cross walk,” Heseltine said. “We like to say that if we get someone from the active duty or the Guard to join us, it’s a save, meaning the Air Force doesn’t lose talent and we retain our most vital resources, our Airmen and their families. It’s a winning relationship any way you look at it.”
“I thought the recruiting event was a great start. Airmen have the opportunity to be part of the Guard, the Reserve or the active duty. Once they are part of any of these organizations, they have the option to move to the other components,” Knobbe said. “I know Airmen who started out in the active duty, went to the Reserve and are now in the Air National Guard. Also, I know Airmen who have been in the Air National Guard and have crossed over to the Reserve. The more recruiting events like this we can have, the more we all understand the ability to recruit and retain talent for the U.S. Air Force, whether that’s active duty, Reserve or Air National Guard.”
Knobbe said when he looks at the three wings at McConnell he can’t help but think of the three McConnell brothers.
“McConnell Air Force Base is named for the three brothers and I like to think of each wing representing them,” Knobbe said. “I always see the famous picture of them and think of that as the perfect representation of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing, 931st Air Refueling Wing and the 184th Wing – all different, but here for the same purpose—to provide warfighting capability for our great nation.”
“At the wing command level, it’s a lot easier to see how interconnected and interdependent we are. And those are two great partners to work with,” Tanner said. “Between those two factors, we all have both a vested interest and sincere desire in having a good relationship. If we ever have to go take on the high end fight, it will be a team effort if we expect to be successful. That doesn’t start on day one of the conflict—it started way before that.”
While this immersion event was unique, Rigoni sees no reason it can’t be duplicated.
“I hope we can benchmark and reproduce events similar to this event at each of the other 38 wings and at each of our four recruiting squadrons in the Air Force Reserve,” he said. “Often overlooked, recruiting provides the Air Force Reserve first contact and interface in communities and bases all over the world. Recruiting is an important conduit and liaison between unit commanders, leaders and prospective new members.”
To find out more about opportunities to serve in the Air Force Reserve at McConnell AFB, contact Senior Master Sgt. Cole Chamberlain at 316-295-7060 or firstname.lastname@example.org.