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Flight Commander's Edge finds success via sub-virtual format

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Noah J. Tancer
  • 910th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

With the finish line in sight, you don’t stop, you double down.

As COVID-19 vaccines become more available to the public and the overall case numbers decline, more Airmen are seeing the finish line, and yet Centers for Disease Control and Department of Defense physical distancing guidelines and mask wear policies are still in play. The race isn’t over, but the 910th Airlift Wing is still innovating to stay ahead.

At the forefront of the Air Force’s “Accelerate Change or Lose” concept, the 910th has pioneered several distributed operations concepts in the field to maintain currency while mitigating COVID-19 risk. Youngstown Air Reserve Station, while overcoming COVID restrictions, adapted and successfully improved the 910th AW’s third annual Flight Commander’s Edge Air University course, Feb. 18-21, 2021.

“Before COVID, we taught the course in a large group format,” said Capt. Jamila Thomas, a clinical nurse assigned to the 910th Medical Squadron and the lead coordinator for this year’s FCE. “But now we’ve found out from the students and mentors that the sub-virtual way apparently provides a better learning environment. With a few modifications, this may be the way it’s taught even after COVID restrictions are gone.”

Determined to grow, 910th AW Reserve Citizen Airmen came together through a sub-virtual format, mixing small group in-person discussion and large group virtual learning to efficiently balance a personable learning environment and COVID-19 risk mitigation. Presenters worked in a separate room in pre-scheduled blocks of time to limit path crossing.

“We had six rooms with six students and two mentors each, save for one room with seven students,” said Chief Master Sgt. Robert Fisher, the cyber systems superintendent assigned to the 910th Communications Squadron and lead producer of this year’s sub-virtual FCE, “then a seventh room for presenters to talk and answer questions live on Microsoft Teams. It’s not a full-proof format, and it was only meant for this year, but with some tweaks, it could be the future way of doing the course.”

The FCE is a three-and-a-half-day course taught on-station. The AU lesson plan is intended to be easy enough to follow with little or no teaching experience required. Few other bases don’t teach it, and some don’t even know about it. It is intended for master sergeants and above and company-grade officers; however, the attending ranks and class curriculum may be modified by commanders to better meet the goal of strengthening the squadron.

“Great leadership is a relay; sooner or later you’ve got to pass the baton,” said Thomas. “The Flight Commander’s Edge course is one of the most beneficial Air University courses available to up-and-coming leaders. So much so that we changed the whole way of teaching it so we wouldn’t miss this year’s. It’s a sadly underrated course.”

The FCE is unique to other AU courses in that the presenters, mentors and coordinators, with the exception of a few guest speakers, are all facilitated in-house by the student’s peers, leaders and other base personnel. With the small group format, coordinators tried to separate co-workers where they could. The idea was to prevent workplace niches in the groups, let the students take their ranks off and encourage networking and collaboration with others they normally wouldn’t interact with. That idea, along with the virtual ability to mute groups during small group discussion, ended up being key improvements to the course as it didn’t allow groups to overpower or interrupt each other.

“It gives the class a much more comfortable and personal feeling,” said Tech. Sgt. Michael Depamphilis, a commander support staff member assigned to the 910th AW, and a coordination volunteer with the FCE. “With this year’s virtual environment, we found smaller groups were able to learn faster and on a more intimate level, than a traditional classroom style.”

YARS’s FCE curriculum included blocks on:

  • The Role of the Flight Commander
  • Preparing for Command
  • Discipline, Non-judicial punishment, Uniform Code of Military Justice
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Conflict Management
  • Retention
  • Followership
  • Senior Leadership Panel
  • Taking Care of Airmen Resiliency
  • Developing Full-Range Leadership
  • Building and Busting Teams
  • Leading Change
  • DISC Assessment
  • Time and Meeting Management
  • Developing Others
  • Taking Care of Families
  • Mission Command in Leadership
  • Ethical Leadership/Difficult Conversations
  • Senior-Leader Perspective
  • The Road Ahead

Guest speakers, in order of attendance, were: Jim Tressel, president of Youngstown State University and honorary 910th Airlift Wing commander; retired Col. Daniel Sarachene, a member of the Eastern Ohio Military Affairs Commission and former commander of the 910th AW, 2017 to 2019; and Len Petrancosta, the COO of Peak Performance Management and a DISC assessment coach.

Lt. Col. Karen Gharst, the commander of the 445th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, attended as an observer, hoping to gain insights for planning an FCE for her wing. Gharst learned about the course from Col. Don Wren, the 445th Mission Support Group commander and former commander of the 910th Mission Support Group. With assistance from YARS, WPAFB plans to host a FCE course in May.

“Teaching this force development course is a direct reflection of the solid culture and leadership of this wing,” said Gharst. “I will be able to benchmark dozens of great ideas from Youngstown’s FCE committee and would personally like to thank Lt. Col. Jeff Shaffer and Capt. Jamila Thomas for helping us set-up our course. I’m so thankful for the provided resources, lessons learned and overall opportunity to observe this week.”

Upon graduation of the course, certificates of completion were provided to each student’s squadron commander to present to the graduate.

The base Community Activity Center supplied coffee and lunch, and the USO of Northern Ohio supplied plenty of snack bags. As the saying goes, you can’t run a race on an empty stomach.