SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – A morning sun broke the North Texas horizon Oct. 3, 2019, ushering in a new day at Sheppard AFB, the Air Force’s largest and most diverse training installation.
The base has grown accustomed to leading the way when it comes to training the future of the Air Force, as its maxim suggests – “Combat Capability Starts Here!” Half of the service’s fighter pilots are trained here. Almost half of all basic military training graduates come here for the next chapter of their young careers, and all of the Air Force’s aircraft maintenance force is trained at a Sheppard asset.
It’s no surprise the base is now home to the Air Force’s largest NCO Academy, which made history the aforementioned October morning when 285 non-commissioned officers of Class 20-1 began a professional military education journey to further grow as leaders and mentors. The new class, according to the Enlisted PME Registrar’s Office at Thomas N. Barnes Center for Enlisted Education at Maxwell AFB, Mississippi, slightly edged out the 284 student load of Airey NCOA Class 19-2 at Tyndall AFB, Florida.
Chief Master Sgt. Malik J. Barnes, who officially became the new commandant for the Sheppard NCOA the day before Class 20-1 began, said he knew the Air Force was a bit behind on getting qualified technical sergeants through the second tier of PME, but he didn’t know of plans for growth at Sheppard until he attended the 2019 Air Force Sergeants Association Professional Airmen’s Conference, where he learned the size of each class could reach 294 students with the potential to add more.
“I was excited,” he said. “I get to influence that many tech. sergeants? That’s amazing.”
But it’s not just him influencing the up-and-coming leaders, he was quick to point out. It’s primarily the cadre of instructors and staff, who he said “have been killing it,” who will lead the 21 flights of 12-14 students each through the six-week course. Barnes applauded the efforts of the NCOA staff of almost 40 for educating students while growing from a maximum load of 154 technical sergeants just two years ago.
Senior Master Sgt. Jason Ramon, NCOA director of education, described the group as hard working and professional with a hunger for and motivation to take on the challenge of growing the academy, which is located in Bldg. 1900.
“The growth has been surreal,” he said, “but at the same time amazing to watch all the moving parts, gaining 13 additional instructors and training all 13 instructors in less than four months, and working with our mission partners.”
Senior Master Sgt. David Cameron, NCOA director of resources for the past four years, said the build up at Sheppard began about two years ago when the Air Force looked at the existing NCOAs and considered which location could grow. After considering several factors, it was decided Sheppard had the space, infrastructure and support to meet the demands of PME.
Once all of the initial analysis and planning was complete, the timeline for expanding the Sheppard load was relatively short. But the devastating effects of Hurricane Michael on Tyndall AFB almost a year ago sped up the transition.
Cameron said the focus of the Sheppard NCOA was to work through the challenges, makes changes as needed and keep students focused on their mission. They also had to take some of their own lessons to heart.
“For us, the challenge was being able to keep an optimistic outlook on the change,” he said. “That’s part of what we teach – being adaptable – and sometimes making a change happen with 200-and-something people at one time is a challenge.”
An increased student load also meant a need for more instructors to handle the growth. Master Sgt. Charles Davis, NCOA superintendent of faculty development, said the staff knew there would be a shortfall of instructors to parallel the surge of students, so he reached out to the Barnes Center for more instructors.
In addition to two instructors from the Kisling NCOA at Kapaun Air Station, Germany, the Sheppard NCOA also received 13 new student instructors, most with no teaching experience at all, who had to get trained and qualified to teach classes in a short amount of time. Training included a 30-day course at Maxwell AFB to get the foundations of teaching, and then a 180-hour internship at Sheppard before taking on a class.
“One of the unique things is when we get instructors in from school, we immediately try to get them into the classroom … to get that experience,” Davis said. “Once they have that experience and that next class comes, they’re able to be in front of the class with qualified instructors sitting in the back evaluating them.”
Growing from an average of 154 students per class to being able to accommodate 294-304 has been challenging, and there is still room to grow, Barnes said. He said Sheppard has the infrastructure and ability to continue to grow, it’s just a matter of funding for additional flights and continuing to work on some of the issues unique to the base.
The Sheppard NCOA hosts seven classes annually with a break in the summer.