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Former F-22 Pilot Takes Leadership To New Levels

August 28, 2020

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Lt. Col. Aaron Oliver of Civil Air Patrol's Oklahoma Wing preparing for flight in a Civil Air Patrol Cessna
 (Photo: Provided by Oklahoma Wing, CAP)

by Capt. Brandon Lunsford, CAP, Oklahoma Wing

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – On Aug. 15, 2020, Civil Air Patrol’s (CAP) National Headquarters, based out of Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, hosted its first virtual annual conference. Over 10 thousand members from across the United States registered for the conference which held 140 training sessions for adult and cadet members on leadership development, cyber innovation, artificial intelligence and more. 

CAP honored the organization’s top noncommissioned airmen and officers with 29 national level awards covering all aspects of the organization. Oklahoma Wing’s Lt. Col. Aaron Oliver of Oklahoma City was presented with the Col. David Kantor Operations Staff Officer of the Year Award. The award was established to recognize active members who have contributed significantly to the success of CAP’s operational missions, including emergency services and homeland security. The selection takes into account the member’s lifetime contributions to CAP, as well as the member’s accomplishments during the previous year.

Oklahoma has a long history of members garnering national recognition and Lt. Col. Oliver is the latest to represent Oklahoma at the national level. Known to many by his USAF nickname “Scuba,” he began his CAP career as a cadet in Louisiana. No matter where life sent him, he has volunteered with CAP. Now, in his 27th year as a CAP member, he currently serves as the Oklahoma Wing Deputy Chief of Staff for Administration. 

“Aaron is a consummate professional,” Oklahoma Wing Commander, Col. David Roberts said. “He has a grasp on the big picture in emergency services missions and works well with the staff in achieving results. He led the operation section for the 2019 U.S. Air Force operations evaluation for our wing and was instrumental in helping to obtain the first perfect score for Oklahoma, no deficiencies in any mission area.” 

“The award is well deserved,” stated Lt. Col. David McCollum, who serves as the Oklahoma Wing Director of Emergency Services. “Scuba doesn’t do these things looking for recognition. Despite his fighter pilot background, he is a humble individual and always looks to give back.”

(L-R) Lt. Col. David McCollum and Lt. Col. Aaron Oliver staffing the CAP table at Aero Oklahoma in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
 (Photo: Provided by Oklahoma Wing, CAP)

Though Civil Air Patrol is known for its flying missions, adult members do more than just fly. Less than a fifth of all CAP members are pilots or aircrew members. Just about any career or background can be found in the ranks of the CAP adult membership.

In emergency services and operations, CAP not only has aircrew members, but also ground team members to aid in the rescue of survivors or to assess damage after a natural disaster. CAP has communications personnel to relay critical messages when there is limited or no telephone support. Administrative staff, financial managers, logistics and supply personnel, all work to document missions and get personnel critical supplies and equipment in the field that they need to conduct missions. 

“No matter the environment,” McCollum stated. “Be it an exercise on mission staff or in the cockpit, I never fail to learn something from Lt Col. Oliver. His professionalism and attention to detail are what cause him to stand out as an example of what an officer should be and I strive to meet that example.”

“The attention to details,” Oliver recalled. “The rigorous adherence to procedures and the commitment to excellence paved the way for me to advance through a successful aviation career. It really began at my cadet basic summer encampment at Keesler AFB, Biloxi, Mississippi. I was a young cadet, away from home for the first time. I was told to make my bed a certain way, and good enough was not good enough. In addition to the bed, meticulous attention to reporting procedures, uniform dress and appearance, close order drill and ceremonies, drill competition and so on all built a foundation of excellence. That commitment to excellence made handling a particularly harrowing emergency situation in an F-22 Raptor seem routine.”

Lt. Col. Aaron Oliver preparing for takeoff as mission aircrew in a Civil Air Patrol Cessna.
(Photo: Provided by Oklahoma Wing, CAP)

“Early in my Air Force career, I was assigned to fly the new F-22 Raptor,” Oliver continued. “I was flying as No. 2 of a two ship formation going out to simulate night aerial combat tactics against four other F-22s who were pretending to be enemy fighters. That night, off the coast of Virginia in our designated training airspace, there were cloud layers above and below us, and no moon to illuminate the night sky. We were flying without our lights on simulating combat conditions when my airplane started to indicate it was having problems. I advised the flight lead of the situation and we began to rejoin to close formation so I could investigate the problem further. As I was rejoining with flight lead, everything inside my airplane went dark. All the displays went blank, including the critical heads up display. I quickly looked inside to assess what had happened when I realized that I could no longer see flight lead. Although I was seconds from running into flight lead’s airplane, my training kicked in immediately and I maneuvered to avoid the collision. Now, with no displays, no lights, and no radios to call for assistance, I realized I could see the faint glow of lights emanating from Norfolk. I pointed toward the lights and gradually descended until I dropped below the cloud layers. As I continued to descend with my landing field in sight, I noticed my flight lead had found me using his radar and followed me through the clouds. We landed uneventfully.”

“One year Aaron served as incident commander for the U.S. Air Force operations evaluation,” stated McCollum. “Planning and executing that important event was challenging, yet very rewarding. Always a step ahead, a keen ability to get the right people in the right places at the right time to do the right job. And always with a smile, an encouraging word for those who needed it, and remaining calm under pressure. A leader, leading. All lessons learned for those who paid attention.”

“Although I enjoy the operations world, the most rewarding and satisfying CAP experiences for me have been my time volunteering at our many cadet summer events,” Oliver recalled. “I’ve been a mentor at Cadet Officer School, the Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (JSUPT) Familiarization Course and four flight academies held here in Oklahoma. I often hear from students all these years later who keep in touch.”

Lt. Col. Aaron Oliver instructing cadets on how to check aircraft fuel levels during preflight inspections at CAPs Powered Flight Academy in Shawnee, Oklahoma in 2012.
(Photo: Provided by Oklahoma Wing, CAP)

“CAP teaches some rock-solid leadership fundamentals and espouses amazing core values,” said Oliver. “It is an organization that aids in the growth and advancement of our members, regardless of age. I recently received a call from a former cadet who I taught to fly. She had interviewed for an information technology position within her company but had no experience in the field and found herself competing against two others with verifiable backgrounds. When asked why they should select her over the others she proudly told the interviewers that, ‘if I can learn how to fly an airplane, I can learn this job.’ She was hired and the experiences, confidence and poise she learned in CAP helped her excel in life.” 

CAP has over 23,000 cadets across the country that need mentors willing to help guide and support them. The cadet program provides young adults between the ages of 12 and 21 a well-rounded program of leadership, aerospace education, physical fitness, and moral and ethical decision making. Many former cadets have gone into the military, government jobs, or private sector employment where they can and do make a difference, and really excel. There are many military general officers that were once CAP cadets. Senators and congressmen, CEOs and others credit their success to CAP and the adult members who mentored them.

“CAP has a robust cadet program that teaches leadership and followership skills that can be used throughout life,” Oliver stated. “For the adults, we offer education and personal advancement opportunities that some companies pay money for employees to attend. We offer an opportunity to serve our communities in times of need. Natural disasters, search and rescues and so on are tragic events to the communities they affect. In one instance, I was called out to lead a ground team in search of a missing person. We arrived with a ground team and our airplane overhead and set out, locating the injured hiker just a few hours later. Another instance being the May 20, 2013, Moore tornado. CAP gives me a way to help communities, mentor a young person just starting out in life, or an adult member who is looking to improve on a life skill. The values and skills our program offers can’t be overstated.”

“For me,” Oliver continued. “This award affirms that all that I have done has had some impact on the bigger picture. Taking on leadership roles within organizations is only as good as the teams supporting the operation. It is a team effort in CAP and although this is a single person award, it would not have been possible to achieve without the outstanding teams that I’ve had the privilege of working with throughout the years.”

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Civil Air Patrol, the longtime all-volunteer U.S. Air Force auxiliary, is the newest member of the Air Force’s Total Force. In this role, CAP operates a fleet of 560 aircraft, performs about 90 percent of continental U.S. inland search and rescue missions as tasked by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center and is credited by the AFRCC with saving an average of more than 80 lives annually. CAP’s 66,000 members also perform homeland security, disaster relief and drug interdiction missions at the request of federal, state and local agencies. In addition, CAP plays a leading role in aerospace/STEM education, and its members serve as mentors to over 28,000 young people participating in CAP’s Cadet Programs. Visit www.GoCivilAirPatrol.com or www.CAP.news for more information.

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