Timing, precision, guts and excellence — this is the mission commander, someone who takes more than 100 men and women from their home station and drops them on a foreign piece of land with one main mission: getting the aircraft and people to the right places at the right times.
One captain, who has been on four off-station training exercises and worked his first mission commander job at an air drop in Romania, was about to get his will tested when he was hand-selected to be the mission commander for the highly complex, multi-aircraft air drop and flyover above the beaches and towns of Normandy, France.
“Leadership is easy when you are leading great Airmen,” said Capt. Dan Walton, 86th Airlift Wing executive officer, C-130J Super Hercules evaluator pilot and mission commander for the air component of the 68th commemoration of the D-Day drops in Normandy. “I had the opportunity to work with some exceptional Airmen from the 86th Airlift Wing and 435th Contingency Response Group. We led the airborne operations for the entire Air Force team, including Reserve, National Guard and international players.”
The mission commander is in charge of creating timelines, procuring aircraft and personnel, and ensuring the success of the overall mission. When it came down to execution, Walton said if not for the support around him, the mission would have failed.
“The devil is in the details — It’s easy to remember the big rocks,” Walton said about the huge tasks and actions they had to execute. “It’s the small ones that are harder to nail down. Every item needs to be accomplished, they all need coordination and someone to accomplish them, and they can all trip you up.”
But the time and effort everyone put into the OST beforehand, he said, was for only one purpose: to make the mission easier for everyone.
“I always attack these command positions by putting myself in the role of the user. What would I want or need to make my life easier as aircrew flying in, a maintainer turning wrenches or even what kind of information, support or tools would I need that would be helpful to get the job done in a strange, unfamiliar place?” he said.
To pull off such a feat, Walton worked at least 12-hour days through the month before the kick-off of the OST.
“Captain Walton worked for almost an entire year to make this year’s D-Day anniversary event happen,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Wehner, who was the 37th Airlift Squadron director of operations at the time of the air drop. “As is his standard, he pulled it off in an outstanding fashion, fitting of a 37th (Airlift Squadron) Bluetail Warrior.”
Due to the complex nature of planning a seven-day training scenario, Walton said he employed the help of Capt. David “Milo” Milodragovich, an instructor pilot with the 37th AS, Staff Sgt. Marie Gamache, 435th Contingency Response Group security forces detail in charge of keeping all Air Force and other multinational aircraft safe, and a host of Airmen within the 86th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and the 435th CRG.
Milodragovich was in charge of all 37th AS assets and was second in charge of the formation air drop. His aircraft also housed the Army’s “Golden Knights,” an elite group of demonstration and competition parachute teams, who jumped out of the C-130J from about 12,500 feet.
“I couldn’t have done it without the help of everyone else, including Milo,” said Walton, who is pushing eight years in the Air Force. “He and Staff Sergeant Gamache were amazing assets for the whole team when it came to execution.”
The culmination of all the paperwork, coordination, support and aircraft came together in the end when three C-130Js, three Air Force Reserve command C-130s, one Air National Guard C-130, a special operations cargo aircraft and a German Transall C-160 together dropped more than 120 parachutists onto the fields of Normandy.
“It was amazing, flying the same route and wearing the same patch as the brave men who went before us on the original D-Day mission and to see the plan come together after all the hours of preparation,” Walton said. “We knocked it out of the park and I am truly proud our team made it happen.”