By Pia Hallenberg, Owner, Content by Pia
Since 1942, Fairchild Air Force Base has been one of Spokane’s cornerstones. You don’t have to spend much time here before you notice the giant planes flying over or learn to recognize the profile of a KC-135 Stratotanker on its way home from a mission.
Like everywhere else, the global pandemic brought new challenges to Fairchild, but that didn’t stop Colonel Cassius T. Bentley III from assuming command of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild Air Force Base on July 1, 2020 – right in the middle of a pandemic shutdown.
“The big thing for us is that our mission and our responsibilities don’t change no matter the situation,” Bentley said. “Yes, some of our meetings went virtual and we had to wear masks and follow all the protocols like everyone else, but our mission to extend reach and deterrence through empowered Airmen stayed the same.”
Bentley said Fairchild has deep community connections and those helped the base immensely – especially early on.
“I’ve been at many bases, and I don’t think anywhere else has a better relationship with the community than we have here at Fairchild,” Bentley said.
It was base medical staff that bore the brunt of COVID-related work early on. The base medical clinic staff there quickly organized an isolated respiratory clinic, to help safely mitigate COVID cases.
“They had to be very innovative: they tested people outside and they also added telehealth for Fairchild Airmen,” Bentley said.
Adding telehealth allowed for Airmen to be treated from a remote location so medical staff could prioritize their health without potentially being exposed to COVID.
“Even though it seems like COVID is better managed now, we still have to follow the same rules as everybody else.”
Not everyone on base could switch to telework – Bentley matter-of-factly points out that you simply can’t repair an airplane from home – still, in some ways, COVID pushed the base to be a little more flexible around Airmen and civilians’ work schedules.
“We do allow more telework now if it makes sense to the person in their particular position, and sometimes it really helps people with childcare and other issues at home,” Bentley said. “We also learned that not all face-to-face meetings were needed. By cutting back on meetings we gave more time back to our Airmen to do their work and gained more time in our actual meetings to deal with the harder issues face-to-face.” That’s a practice he hopes to continue.
Innovation is constant on base and there are many examples of how Airmen worked through unusual and challenging situations. For instance, the 92nd Maintenance Squadron aircraft metals technology shop created a jackscrew mounting bracket for the KC-135 Stratotanker. They reverse-engineered needed parts and created the bracket from the ground up, saving the fleet of KC-135s from the aircraft boneyard. And the Logistics Readiness Squadron invented something called the “Dawgbone”, an assistive tool that can be placed on the bed of any trailer or cargo loading vehicle, allowing Airmen to safely load and unload pallets of cargo more effectively.
great credit to his maintenance crews who keep some of the 64-year-old airplanes
“We have some of the oldest planes in the Air Force,” Bentley said. “We are always working on them, making sure they are in top shape.”
During COVID some of the mechanics got fitted with exoskeletons – braces that are worn that can help in physically demanding jobs to help relieve shoulder and backpressure for the maintenance crew who often work with their hands above their heads for extended periods of time.
Fairchild also took extra steps to make sure anyone with mental health challenges could get help.
“Our One Fairchild Initiative includes helping agencies such as mental health providers, chaplains, and the DUI task force,” Bentley said. “We started a new club program to get families out of the homes and help them meet their neighbors. It is very important to us that we make sure we take care of folks and get them the help and support they need. Our Airmen are our number one priority.”
Air Force families continued to relocate to Fairchild during the pandemic though some assignments were put on hold. “It’s tough for a family to arrive to a new location that’s also in shutdown,” Bentley said.
“This year we have many more people moving on to the base,” Bentley said. “Housing is currently a challenge for us. But the community has been a tremendous support in helping us address this and other issues.”
Reflecting on his first year in charge of the world’s largest tanker wing, Bentley said he is proud of his Airmen and how they faced all the challenges with compassion and determination.
“The 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild Air Force Base does much more than refueling. It is always ready for nuclear alert missions and on standby for homeland defense missions in addition to our typical refueling missions,” Bentley said.
“Fairchild didn’t skip a beat. We are the largest tanker wing in the world, and that comes with great responsibility.Our team is always ready to answer the call, we’re always ready to go – that’s what we do.”