VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. — Col. Corey Simmons, commander of the 71st Flying Training Wing at Vance Air Force Base, paused Monday to provide updates on the base’s efforts to increase pilot production, and on some recent and planned infrastructure projects.
Simmons assumed command at Vance on July 16, relieving Col. Darrell Judy, who has since retired from the Air Force.
Who is Corey Simmons?
Originally from Louisville, Ky., Simmons attended Bellarmine University and earned a commission in the Air Force through Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at the University of Louisville in 1998.
While at Bellarmine, Simmons met Dawn Getz, who he married in 1998. The couple now have four children: Drew, 15, a varsity basketball player and sophomore at Enid High School; Shelby, 13, a soccer player and student at Emerson Middle School; Luke, 11, an avid golfer and student at Eisenhower Elementary School; and Emily, 7, who enjoys gymnastics.
Simmons’ tours of duty have taken the family to four duty stations in less than four years. He said the kids are “very resilient — better than I deserve,” but added the Enid community, especially the schools and churches, “made it very easy.”
“You add all that support together, and you have kids who have moved into their fourth house in less than four years, and they’re completely embedded in the community in less than four months,” Simmons said. “That’s not normal, but it happens at Vance.”
Simmons said getting to command a pilot training base is the realization of a career-long dream, born in his days as a first assignment instructor pilot (FAIP) at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi.
Prior to assuming command at Vance, Simmons was vice commander of the 436th Airlift Wing at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Previous assignments include the Pentagon, Air Command and Staff College, McChord Air Force Base in Washington and three deployments flying the C-17 in Afghanistan. He holds a master’s degree in organizational management from George Washington University and was a 2017 National Defense Fellow at Harvard University.
Simmons has accumulated more than 3,000 flying hours in the C-17, T-1, T-38 and T-37 aircraft, has flown to or served in 75 countries and all seven continents and was the first pilot to land a C-17 in Antartica with the use of night vision goggles.
Simmons has adopted for the base the motto “Vance Proud,” a tribute, he said, to the dedication of Team Vance.
“When I got here as the commander, it was impossible to find someone who wasn’t awesome at their job, and fantastic at building pilots and supporting people who build pilots,” Simmons said. “It’s just a way of doing business here. When you’re here, you’re immediately proud of pushing out pilots who are going to go out and do great things.”
That pride in service paid off recently, Simmons said, when Team Vance swept the Air Education and Training Command Flying Training Awards on Oct. 26, taking home honors among the 19th Air Force’s 18 wings for Top Wing, Top Operations Group, and top training squadrons in the T-6, T-38 and T-1 aircraft.
“When parents sit at graduation and wonder if their kids got great training here at Vance, I can say it’s the best,” Simmons said, “and I can prove it — I can say, ‘Here’s the hardware.’”
Simmons said Vance winning top honors among all the Air Force training commands is due to a team effort.
“That has nothing to do with Colonel Simmons,” he said. “That has everything to do with the 2,700 people who work here every day.”
Increasing pilot output
In response to an Air Force-wide shortage of pilots, Vance has been tasked with increasing its pilot output by more than 30 percent over previous years — from about 320 pilots a few years ago to a projected 420 pilots in fiscal year 2019.
As many as 50 pilots will graduate at a time now, Simmons said, and for the first time, on Jan. 25, the base will graduate two classes on the same day.
The call to ramp up pilot output requires “establishing a new normal,” which will demand more of instructors and maintainers, but Simmons said it won’t involve reducing the requirements put on student pilots.
“Even though we’re increasing the numbers, we’re not lowering the standards,” Simmons said.
Simmons said his team has been working to gain efficiency in the training pipeline by updating the syllabus and increasing the use of commercial “off the shelf” technology, such as virtual reality simulators and on-demand training curricula on tablets and laptops. But, he said, graduating pilots still will have received about the same amount of time in the cockpit.
Increasing pilot output, combined with the age of some of the facilities at Vance, will require investment in infrastructure upgrades during Simmons’ tenure at the base.
All three of the base’s runways have scheduled work within the next two years.
The outside runway, which was resurfaced between May 2016 and June 2017 at a cost of more than $40 million, is expected to have cracks repaired under warranty in the spring. Then, next fall, the inside runway — the primary T-6 runway — is scheduled for threshold replacements and lighting upgrades at an estimated cost of more than $5 million.
The center runway is scheduled for a total resurfacing no earlier than summer of 2020. A cost has not yet been estimated for that project.
Simmons said flight demands require no more than one runway be down at a time, and the proximity of Enid Woodring Regional Airport will help mitigate some of the loss of runway availability during the work.
Increased space for operations also is forthcoming in an 11,000-square-foot modular facility that will be leased and placed next to the current operations building. Simmons said the modular building will remain in place until a permanent, expanded operations building can be constructed. There’s no timeline for that permanent building, but Simmons said it’s expected to cost upwards of $40 million.
Support infrastructure also is being updated. Next spring a $7 million project will move the base’s power lines underground. The base’s billeting — similar to an on-base hotel — recently was remodeled at a cost of $900,000, and work will continue to the temporary lodging facility at a cost of $1.9 million.
Simmons said he’s exploring options for a commercially built and privatized option to replace the current enlisted dorms, which were constructed in the 1950s and house 100 airmen, but that option still is in the initial feasibility study.
A community playground is scheduled to be built north of the clinic, at a cost of $500,000.
Building a supportive culture
In September, RAND Corp. released a government-commissioned study that found, among Air Force bases, female airmen had the greatest risk of sexual assault at Vance. Their risk at Vance was found to be 5.2 percent, compared to 3.1 percent Air Force-wide and more than 10 percent at the highest-risk commands in the Navy.
Simmons said he and his command team “took the RAND report very seriously,” but said the issue of sexual assault and harassment already was “an important issue for us, since long before that report was thought about or published.”
He said the base’s Sexual Assault Prevention Response Program (SAPR) works to educate members of Team Vance — particularly young airmen and student pilots — about sexual assault prevention, and how to respond if it occurs.
“We want our airmen to be educated about the issue, and more importantly, to feel comfortable enough to come forward if something happens,” Simmons said, “and if something happens, we’re prepared to care for the victim while the process plays out.
“We’re going to continue to work to have a culture where you can come forward, and know that you’re going to be supported,” Simmons said. “We were going to continue to emphasize this whether the RAND report existed or not.”
Simmons said Vance is able to increase its output while maintaining high standards in part because of support from the Enid community.
“The Enid community overwhelms this base with love and attention in all the best ways possible,” he said.
“Whether you’re the new wing commander or the new airman on the street, this town is over-the-top supportive with all our folks,” Simmons said. “The approach is always, ‘How can we get to yes?’ That’s not normal. But, it is here in Enid. It’s amazing.”
Story provided by Enid News & Eagle
Written by James Neal