03/21/10 — Kelly takes last flight as 4FW commander

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Kelly takes last flight as 4FW commander

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on March 21, 2010 1:50 AM


Shortly after landing his F-15E Strike Eagle for the final time as 4th Fighter Wing commander, Col. Mark Kelly, greets the more than 100 airmen who helped him mark the occasion Friday.

His flight suit still dripping -- courtesy of the traditional post-sortie hose down -- Col. Mark Kelly pulled his wife and daughter in for a quick kiss and long embrace Friday afternoon.

But his focus quickly shifted to the hundreds of airmen who, moments earlier, had lined the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base flight line as, for one final time as their commander, Kelly taxied by in an F-15E Strike Eagle.

It was a scene fitting for a man who talked a few days prior about just how much the young men and women of the 4th Fighter Wing have impressed him during his year-and-a-half stint as their leader -- how their hard work both at home and abroad will likely shape his legacy.

So as he shook hands with each one moments after he left his family's side, you could see Kelly considered his "fini flight" a culmination of their accomplishments as well as his own.

And when he officially relinquishes command of the wing during a ceremony April 1, his hope is to be remembered by those men and women as someone who made their lives a little better while he could.

"Most airmen could care less about what you know. They want to know how much you care," Kelly said. "Anybody can give them a strong speech and tell them they love them, but you need to bring it and show them you're going to take care of them."

Over the past 18 months, the colonel has tried to do just that -- leading the effort to erect dozens of aircraft shelters on the flight line to keep maintenance crews and the wing's fleet of Strike Eagles out of the elements as much as possible; ensuring there were support systems in place for those left behind during deployments.

"Those (shelters) are probably the most visible ... legacy left behind. But it's not about the airplane, it's about the airman," he said. "Yes, it's a protection piece from the elements for the airplanes, but really, the idea is to extend their life and to reduce the amount of hours we spend working on them -- and to get the airmen out of the elements.

"We have an auto hobby shop on base. We don't ask people to work on cars outside in the rain. ... But we have $54 million airplanes that have been getting rained on and sun-baked and wind-blown and everything else for decades. And for the airmen, it helps their daily life, their quality of life -- especially when it's 42 degrees and blowing rain left and right, up and down."

And keeping those airmen and aircraft out of the elements has kept them fresh for the intense tempo they faced -- and will face again -- in Afghanistan.

"My focus when I came in was 7,200 miles east, and my focus when I leave will be 7,200 miles east," Kelly said. "That's never wavered."

Nor has his commitment to making sure each of those he sent there was properly trained and equipped for the fight.

"My tenure here is pretty easily divided. It's no different than one of our airman. You know, every time I talk to somebody ... basically our airmen fall into one of three categories. They either are deployed, just got back or they are getting ready to go. And as commander, I spent about seven months getting ready, eight months (with members of the wing at war) and three months where they have just come home," he said. "We spent every day of that seven months ensuring that for the eight months we could execute. If you spend seven rigorous months trying to replicate the demands that will take place, then hopefully, you're not surprised. There should have been zero items that were novel when we went over there."

And Kelly's approach paid off as 4th airmen produced a record number of close-air-support combat sorties during their collective tours.

"I wasn't really surprised," he said. "Yes, I'm impressed. No, I'm not surprised."

But their accomplishments were not the only things the colonel would have bet on when he took command of the wing.

The warmth put on display by the communities outside the Seymour Johnson gates during good times and hard ones was also somewhat predictable, he said.

"You expect it, but even so, I think the Goldsboro/Wayne community is spot on," Kelly said. "Keep doing what you're doing. Keep treating the airmen and the officers and the civilians who work on base as your neighbors because they are. It's a real love fest out there."


Shortly after Kelly passes the reins to his current Vice Commander Col. Patrick Doherty, he will leave Goldsboro en route to a post in Hawaii.

Maybe by then, he will begin to appreciate all that has transpired since he came back to the base where he once trained and served.

"Has it soaked in yet? Yes and no. I think I have a good perspective but not a good appreciation," Kelly said. "Just like those young airmen going out the door, they may understand what they are about to do, but they don't have true appreciation for it until they have time to reflect."