The man who took over Fairchild Air Force Base in the wake of a mass murder and a fatal plane crash, then guided it through its biggest mission change since World War II, is moving on.
Brig. Gen. Gary Voellger will turn over the top spot at Fairchild this August after 13 months as wing commander of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing.
The change seems to fly in the face of criticism by the Air Force’s own investigators that Fairchild has had too many commanders in recent years.
Voellger said Wednesday he believes a new emphasis on safety, coupled with the fact that most of his deputies will remain at Fairchild, should answer any concerns that the management for the base has a dangerous revolving door.
“Frankly, it surprised me that I would be leaving at the one-year point,” he said. “But I don’t think the community should be concerned that there’s any risk. Most of the wing will remain in place.”
Voellger will be replaced by Col. Arthur Lichte, an assistant to the Air Mobility commander-inchief at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
Voellger assumed command on July 1, when Fairchild stopped being a B-52 base and became the nation’s largest aerial refueling facility.
Crews that had flown and fixed the huge bombers were sent elsewhere. The ranks of the KC-135 air and ground crews expanded rapidly as the base grew from two to five tanker squadrons.
When Voellger took command, Fairchild was reeling from two devastating events. On June 20, a deranged former airman killed four and wounded 22 at the base hospital complex. On June 24, a B-52 practicing for an air show crashed in the middle of an unsafe maneuver, killing the four-man crew.
Investigators of the crash said one of the contributing factors was the high turnover in top officers at the base throughout the 1990s. That turnover led to a lack of continuity and unsafe practices went unreported or unpunished, investigators said.
Voellger said the change of command became a watershed event that allowed Fairchild to begin putting the twin tragedies behind. He made safety his top priority and had it put first in the base’s mission statement.
“I told people they can’t tell me the mission comes before safety. You can’t do the mission if you’ve broken the people or the airplanes,” he said.
He said he has already told his successor that safety should remain a core value at Fairchild.
Voellger will become the commander of an air mobility wing at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FAIRCHILD’S BRASS OF THE ‘90s The Air Force has sent a new wing commander to Fairchild Air Force Base almost every year in the 1990s. Investigators of last year’s fatal B-52 crash cited that as a factor that contributed to the accident. Top Air Force officials said they were shocked at the rapid turnover rate. Here’s a list of Fairchild’s most recent wing commanders: Col. Mike Ruotsala, July 1991-August 1992. Next assignment: Pentagon. Gen. James Richards III, August 1992-August 1993. Next assignment: Pentagon: Col. William Brooks, August 1993-June 1994. Next Assignment, DavisMonthan Air Force Base, Arizona. Gen. Gary Voellger, July 1994-August 1995. Next assignment: Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina. During 1992-94, when dangerous maneuvers were being performed at air shows, the base also had three vice wing commanders, three flight operations commanders and five squadron commanders. Voellger said Wednesday that a new emphasis on safety at the base, coupled with many of his deputies remaining behind, will provide continuity despite his pending transfer.