A few days prior to the official Change of Command Ceremony, Col. Randel Gordon, Arnold Engineering Development Complex commander, sat down with the High Mach staff to introduce himself and his goals for his new role.
When asked about his best duty assignment so far, he explained that “it’s always the one you’re about to get into.
“You have to be open to the mission, open to the experience and what it teaches you. Then you walk in hopeful and accepting and in the end you’re like ‘Wow, this is the greatest thing ever.’”
“I’ve learned, especially being military and bouncing around a lot and having lived in places as different as Hawaii and now Tennessee. In every single one of those spots, there’s always something kind of unique and special. You just have to open yourself up to what that might be. You can’t just expect Hawaii to be a Tennessee, or Alaska to be a California. But when you get there, you just say, ‘Okay, this place has something special to offer, let me see if I can find what that is.’”
Though each duty location is different, Gordon said that his favorite job in his Air Force career so far was serving as part of initial cadre of AFWERX and then as director of the Secretary of the Air Force’s Artificial Intelligence Accelerator with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“It’s great that there’s an Air Force and MIT partnership and that I got to help stand that up as the initial director,” he said. “It was cool, essentially getting to be an entrepreneur in the Air Force. It was one of those, ‘Well, there’s no [existing] regulations.’ There was no history, so we had to figure out how to do it. It was kind of nice to have that level of flexibility and freedom to go and do.”
Knowing that innovation is important to not only the Air Force, but to the AEDC mission, Gordon stated that he fully encourages the AEDC workforce to bring new ideas to the table and explore possibilities that haven’t yet been tried.
“When I first started with AFWERX, my mindset was technology-driven,” he said. “To go find some widget or something, when in reality, what I’ve come to find is that innovation is all about the mindset, culture and people.
“The United States is probably one of the only places in the world where we really embrace the entrepreneurial spirit, and we have built a system that encourages people to make investments to support these sorts of things and as a result, you see the nation that we have today.”
Gordon added that part of innovation is setting incentives and letting the organization know “that the boss 100 percent supports you in doing this.”
“This is why Gen. [David] Goldfein, when he was chief of staff for the Air Force, was so adamant about ‘squadrons are the heartbeat of the Air Force’… When you look back at our history as an Air Force we were founded by revolutionaries who didn’t accept the status quo and were constantly pushing boundaries.”
According to Gordon, Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, who is AEDC’s namesake, was one of the greatest, innovative Airmen.
“Anything involving rocketry, computer science, jet engines, you can trace that all back to the support that Hap Arnold gave the Army Air Corps at the time in the 1940s, and the fact that this leader set the tone, and we had this environment and world war that fostered, ‘If we don’t do it, then [another country] will,’ and we can’t lose in the world war,” he said.
“So, you create this type of culture by letting people know that it’s okay. It’s okay if you try and it doesn’t work. That’s alright, I’m going to celebrate you. I am going to think that’s awesome if you went out and tried something and you made an audacious goal. You reached for it and even if you didn’t achieve it, that’s okay. That’s the only way you get to the breakthroughs, by try, fail, try, fail, learn, iterate, try, fail, learn… and if we build a culture that supports that, I believe that goes a long way in getting Airmen, and I mean civilian, contractor and military, to see that’s accepted and that’s okay. That’s what creates the culture of innovation.”
Gordon also said he believes that a commander’s leadership is vital to a wing’s mission because the commander helps set the tone and should create a positive, supportive culture.
“Someone once told me a long time ago that ‘the commander is the weatherman,’” he said. “By that they meant, I could walk in today and say, ‘Man it’s really cold out here; it’s freezing and miserable,’ even though it’s 92 degrees outside with 100 percent humidity. Because it’s the commander who said that, people will naturally gravitate to the attitudes and mindset of the commander. If you’re going to be ‘the weatherman,’ by having that role, you should use it for good.
“If you can shift mindsets and make people know that they’re supported, the mission that they’re performing is vital, it really does matter and it’s meaningful work.”
Asked about how AEDC fits into the big picture of the nation’s defense, Gordon stated that the complex is on the forefront of capabilities relevant to the world now.
“I think of it at a center-level. We are the Air Force Test Center. Each part is almost like a jewel in the crown, and each part of that is test overall. Arnold can do that things that cannot be done at either Edwards [Air Force Base] or Eglin [Air Force Base]. So for that reason, someone once told me, don’t try to be the best, be the only.
“Arnold is the only. You simply cannot do this type of work anywhere else within the Test Center enterprise. For that case, we need to be the only that can get these technologies when they’re still very young and rapidly iterate, prototype and be willing to take some risks because we’re trying to find the right solution, and get good products out to the flight test or weapons test, so that it rapidly gets out to the warfighter. Because the world needs American leadership from a technology standpoint.”
Gordon said the AEDC workforce should be proud of the role they play in the nation’s defense, and “wear it with a badge of honor and pride.”
“If you take what Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., chief of staff of the Air Force, says to, ‘accelerate, change or lose,’ I see that as very relevant to ‘Hey testers, what are you doing to stay relevant and on the forefront and not stuck in this Cold War way of doing business’ that we’ve done forever. Because we’re operating in new regimes where the adversary is moving so quickly that if we don’t do it, they certainly will, and if they get a strategic advantage against us, then all the things that America protects go into jeopardy. I didn’t join the military to lose. I joined because I wanted to be on a winning team that was always standing for something bigger and larger than itself.
“That’s where I see AEDC’s role. Whether in air or space, it’s probably been tested here in some capacity. Therefore, we need to turn that gain up a bit because the demand signal from the warfighter front is huge and is only getting bigger.”
To this point, Gordon commented that Team AEDC should definitely be proud of the work they’re doing every day.
“The domain of STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] has always been near and dear to me. I’ve viewed engineers as almost magic. They’re the ones who take the world that should be and bring that from the future to the present.
“Gen. David Harris, previous AFTC commander, said something once that always stuck with me, he said, ‘You know what you need a little bit more of? Swagger. Test swagger.’ He meant that we should be proud to be testers, in the same way that Navy Seals are proud to be called Seals.”
As AEDC approaches its 71st year, Gordon is the Complex’s first black commander, making his assumption of command a historical first. But he said he doesn’t want the focus to necessarily be on this.
“I’ve always looked at my role as don’t strive to be the best black pilot or best black commander, just be the best commander,” Gordon said. “Race or gender or whatever else, you don’t really need to trumpet it. People see it, it’s obvious. But at the end of the day, what people are looking for is solid leadership and someone who cares and wants to promote them and be part of the mission.
“I am also aware that there is a precedent established there and to be a good example for others. For minority communities, you have to see it to believe it, and I’m here because I saw guys, like Gen. Lloyd “Fig” Newton at the time, and I went, ‘Oh wow, it is possible!’ to be a fighter pilot and a Thunderbird and to go on to be a four-star general. But I also knew that Gen. Newton was a competent pilot, competent leader and competent as a four-star general, and that he wasn’t there just because of his race. He was there because he earned his spot to be there, and the people who served with him and worked with him were aware of that and looked at him as a great leader, who also so happens to be black.”
Though he only moved from California to Tennessee a couple weeks ago, Gordon said he is already a fan of the culture and hopes to publicize the great work done by AEDC.
“I see a gigantic demand for what we do here and it’s not going to go away, nor should it. For those reasons, keeping Arnold on the forefront with all the capabilities that we test and do here that are so unique to this place.”