Columbus AFB hosts two graduations amidst COVID-19 regulations

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Davis Donaldson
  • 14th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
Thirty-two pilots graduated from Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. on Dec. 11, 2020.

In order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the larger class was spilt up into two ceremonies, allowing proper social distancing among the graduates and family members attending.

The guest speaker for the first ceremony was U.S. Air Force Retired Lt. Col. Richard “Gene” Smith, former Vietnam prisoner of war and former 50th Flying Training Squadron commander.

Smith offered pieces of advice to the graduates as they prepared for the next phase of their careers.

As a prisoner of war in the Vietnam War, Smith spoke about how he was shot down and held captive at the Hỏa Lò Prison, otherwise known as the “Hanoi Hilton”. Smith flew 33 combat missions in the F-105 Thunderchief.

Smith used his experiences from Vietnam as one of his lessons for the graduates. The lesson being how to face the enemy in today’s world.

“The world that you guys are facing today is totally different than 20 years ago, 40 years and certainly 50 years ago,” said Smith. “We kind of knew who the enemy was back then, even in Vietnam, but we don’t know who the enemy is today. Even though the enemy may be hard to define, your job is to be so prepared that the enemy wakes up and says ‘not today’.”

After, Smith asked the new pilots if any of them thought that they had a bad assignment. He then proceeded to say no bad assignment exists and that the assignment is based on what the pilot makes of it. After, Smith gave closing remarks and said he was thankful for the opportunity to speak at their graduation.

For the second graduation ceremony, a guest speaker was not able to attend. Stepping up to the role was Col. Seth Graham, 14th Flying Training Wing commander.

Graham said his speech was towards the families more so than the graduates as he talked about how challenging pilot training is and how proud their families should be.

“Pilot training is one of the hardest things these young men and women will do in their career,” Graham said. “It’s been nearly 21 years since I graduated myself, and pilot training remains one of the most difficult challenges I have faced.”

He continued by saying pilot training is hard for a reason. The U.S. Air Force cannot be the best without setting exceptional standards, he said.

“In the last year, the training has entailed countless hours in academic classrooms and learning everything from the fuel system of a T-6 to safely navigating international airspace.” Graham said. “They have been tested, quizzed, questioned and evaluated relentlessly. In mere weeks, they went from barely being able to strap themselves into an airplane to flying solo.”

After, Graham said their training was relentless because of U.S. adversaries. The U.S. Air Force must compete with adversaries at a global level through air power, he said.

Graham then congratulated SUPT Class 21-03 and began the awarding of their diplomas.

“So today we celebrate the Air Force’s newest pilots,” Graham said. “The road has been tough and not everyone who started this journey with you had what it takes to walk across this stage. Congratulations Class 21-03, I’m proud to call you wingmen and I look forward to watching you tackle the challenges of the future.”