Scrubbed AWACS Flights Lead to Toxic Leadership Allegations at Tinker Air Force Base

The E-3 Sentry is a modified Boeing 707/320 commercial airframe with a rotating radar dome. (Courtesy photo)

A leaked audio recording of a group commander at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, lecturing airmen after sorties were canceled due to crew fatigue has raised concerns about the wing's leadership style and safety culture.

The concerns became public July 17, when the unofficial Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page posted an account by an anonymous author alleging a "toxic culture of leadership" in the operations group for Tinker's 552nd Air Control Wing, which flies the Boeing E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS, aircraft.

According to the account, AWACS crews last week were ordered to show up for exercise sorties with roughly half the sleep they needed. The writer said base leaders decided it was not safe to fly, calling off all three planned flights and allowing the crews to rest.

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But the next afternoon, Col. Gary Donovan, commander of the 552nd Operations Group, "berated" the crews for scrubbing the flights, the account said.

In audio posted with the Facebook account of events, Donovan can be heard expressing his dismay at learning the crews were unable to carry out their missions.

"I can't express to you the level of disappointment I have right now," he says on the recording.

The AWACS is a modified Boeing 707 with a massive, unmistakable rotating radar dome mounted on top of its fuselage. The aircraft provides real-time pictures of battlespaces and early warning of enemy actions, and is a key piece of the Air Force's command-and-control capabilities.

In a written statement to, wing commander Col. Keven Coyle, to whom Donovan reports, said that open trust and communication between airmen and their leadership is necessary for the wing's missions to be accomplished successfully.

Coyle, who took command of the wing June 30, confirmed that three sorties were canceled last week due to concerns over crew fatigue. The wing's guidelines call for allowing aircrews 12 hours of rest -- including eight hours of uninterrupted rest -- before flying a sortie, he explained.

When flight schedules would disrupt crews' sleep cycle there are options to allow personnel to adjust quickly, Coyle said. 

Crews could be given time between schedule changes to adjust to the new plan and get sufficient rest, he said. If there is not enough time available to naturally adjust their sleep cycle, individual crew members can ask for doctor-prescribed sleep aids -- known as "no-gos" -- to help them get the rest they need, Coyle added. 

"While sometimes needed, medication is the last resort for fatigue mitigation, and should always be used as part of a robust strategy rather than a single solution," Coyle said. "Flying fatigued is not recommended but sometimes accepted based on the crew position, sortie profile, the experience level of the crews, and/or the importance of the mission."

The unidentified writer whose account was posted on the amn/nco/snco page said that the crews were not allowed to take no-go pills to help rest for the canceled missions, and that flight crews showed up that day after having slept an average of only three or four hours.

Coyle said multiple procedures are in place to help aircrews tell whether they are fit to fly, including a risk management assessment. The pilot in command of the flight makes the final call on whether members are fit to fly before anyone sets foot on an airplane, he said.

"Aircrew in the 552nd Air Control Wing understand their requirement to self-report when they feel flying would put their safety (or that of the crew) at risk," Coyle said. "This is what happened the night of the exercise and, as a result, the crews didn't fly. The airmen followed protocol, and the system worked as designed."

On Sunday, he posted a message on the wing's official Facebook page in which he stressed that safety is important to the 552nd and denied that the unit has a problem with toxic leadership. 

"There is a difference between toxic leadership and intrusive leadership that holds people accountable," he wrote on Facebook. "Toxic leaders don't care about their subordinates, they only care about themselves. ... Toxic leaders berate, belittle and demean teammates to accomplish their purposes. These are NOT the leaders in the 552!

"Sometimes they will be disappointed by decisions," he continued. "This is because they care. That is not toxicity."

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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