Col. Gordon reflects on time as AEDC commander

  • Published
  • By Bradley Hicks
  • AEDC Public Affairs

Arnold Engineering Development Complex Commander Col. Randel Gordon’s arrival at Arnold Air Force Base evoked a feeling he experienced only one other time in his nearly 30-year Air Force career.

The first time Gordon experienced the sentiment was in 2011 after he and his wife deboarded a plane in Honolulu, Hawaii, prior to the start of his Air Force assignment there.

“We flew to Hawaii. We got off the airplane. They opened the door,” Gordon recalled. “You get that first wash of very humid tropical air, and you can smell the flowers in the breeze, and you’re looking out and you see Diamond Head over there in the Pacific Ocean. I had this feeling. I turned to my wife and I said, ‘I’m going to miss this assignment.’ We haven’t even started yet, and I already miss this place, even though that’s still years out in the future.

“I had the same feeling walking in here of just immediately, on day one, it was like, ‘I’m going to miss this place,’ because Tennessee as a whole has just been such a fantastic place to live. What a beautiful state. What great people, patriotic people. It’s been really wonderful just seeing the state and getting a chance to view it as a first-time visitor.”

Gordon will depart Arnold AFB, headquarters of AEDC, on June 13, the same day Col. Grant Mizell will assume the post of AEDC commander.

The outgoing commander said he plans to retire from the Air Force and relocate to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he will be surrounded by friends and Air Force colleagues who have also retired to the area. With the move, Gordon’s career will have come full circle, as it was at the Air Force Academy located near Colorado Springs that his Air Force career began.

“I was commissioned at the Air Force Academy in 1998,” Gordon said. “I met my wife there in 1997. It’s kind of a neat way to close the loop. I’m going to close my career exactly at the spot where I began it almost exactly 30 years ago, which is awesome.”

In retirement, Gordon intends to remain engaged in aviation and technology and plans to mentor youths on the subjects.

Before departing his post at Arnold to begin his next chapter in the Centennial State, Gordon took some time to discuss some of the accomplishments and highlights that occurred within AEDC during his tenure as complex commander. 

Gordon arrived at Arnold AFB in June 2022, bringing with him around two dozen years of Air Force experience as well as both a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in aeronautical engineering and a Strategy Ph.D. and Master of Philosophy from the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.

Prior to this, Gordon had only heard of Arnold but had never visited nor been assigned there. It also represented the only site in the Air Force Test Center enterprise in which he knew no one. This, Gordon said, allowed him to view Arnold AFB and AEDC with a fresh perspective.

Perspectives

Gordon said he was instantly struck by the size of the test cells across Arnold AFB upon his arrival at the installation.

“As an engineer, this place was like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory,” he said. “Never in my life had I been inside these gigantic wind tunnels. I hadn’t been up next to these huge rocket stands.”

This feeling was only strengthened upon visits to AEDC geographically separated units, such as the Holloman High Speed Test Track at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, and the National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex at Moffett Field, California. Gordon said the complex offered “huge engineering on a scale I hadn’t seen in my entire life.”

“All the things I learned as an undergrad and graduate engineering student, here was a chance to actually see it put into practice, so it made engineering real,” he said.

Gordon said he was also quickly impressed by the personnel employed throughout AEDC.

“Getting a chance to see the men and women who work on this equipment and keep everything going was totally eye-opening,” he said. “It immediately gave me a sense of the professionalism, the care, the fact that so much of Arnold is almost like a generational thing, like grandparents had served here and fathers had served here and they’re all engineers.”

Gordon also lauded fellow AEDC leaders, particularly hitting upon their knowledge, attentiveness and dependability. 

“I can only count it as a blessing that we’ve had such fantastic leaders here that really know their job, that really care about taking care of their people, that will help in terms of trying to solve a problem that we’ve never been presented before, but we can use those first principles of leadership to solve it but do it together,” he said. “It’s been really wonderful to have a team you can rely upon like that, at any hour of the day, any day of the week, twice on Sunday, that whatever it is, we’re going to solve it together.

“When I look back on that part of the experience, I look back at it and I go, ‘What a blessing. What a blessing to have such talented leaders that have been across the enterprise that just know their stuff and know their people and really care to win at great power competition.’ I really loved that part of the leadership side.”

Gordon said his time at Arnold has served as education on bringing about innovation on a large scale.

“All those paintings of Gen. ‘Hap’ Arnold that we see hanging up on the walls, it’s very difficult for me to tell if he’s smirking or smiling,” Gordon said. “I’ve always looked at that to go, ‘Hey, at the end of my tour, is Gen. Arnold smirking and saying, ‘Man, what an idiot. Look at how he trashed everything. He ruined my legacy.’ Or is he smiling, going, ‘Yep, those are the things that are going to keep Arnold relevant for 2030, 2040.’

“My hope is the second, that he looks back and the changes that we put in place here are the things that are going to position this place well for the coming decades and the challenges that we know are coming.”

Accomplishments

Among the changes that occurred while Gordon was at the helm of AEDC was the expansion of the existing complex Program Management Office, which was focused on service contract management, by adding a dedicated acquisition program management branch. With this, the AEDC program management function now has both a Service Branch to continue to focus on service contract program management and an Acquisition Branch to oversee the investments needed to meet Department of Defense obligations and expenditure requirements for funding AEDC is set to continue receiving in the coming years.

“I spent the first couple of months of my tour just asking questions and just walking around going, ‘Hey, what really bothers you? What are the pain point factors? How do we go about solving that?’ What immediately became very obvious is that we didn’t have dedicated program managers to look at our facilities as a weapons system in and of itself,” Gordon said. “We have a lot more in common with places like NORAD than we do Altus Air Force Base, for example, in the sense that while we’re named a base and it looks like we have buildings here, in reality when you come onboard Arnold, you’re coming onboard to a living, breathing weapons system that’s fully integrated. Like any other weapons system, there needs to be a program office to help manage the growth, the improvements and modernization on that.

“Getting support from the team, getting buy-in and then watching this thing mature and grow has been really fantastic.”

Another accomplishment Gordon mentioned was the standup of the AEDC Innovation Office. A primary goal of this office is to help personnel bring ideas on how to boost efficiency, cut costs and improve safety from concept to reality.

“I see this as a hinge point,” Gordon said. “It’s a milestone point in the story of what Gen. ‘Hap’ Arnold had for us way back in the 1940s, which is how do we still continue to make the Buck Rogers technology of the future. So getting a chance to stand up the Innovation Team and have that go full-time so we can have people dedicated solely to ‘How do we improve processes? How do we bring forward great ideas? How do we fund that and not let that be something that’s extracurricular but, no kidding, full-time?’ That’s what they do. I’m really grateful I got a chance to be here for that.”

Along with the establishment of these two offices, Gordon noted quality of life improvements for team members at Arnold AFB as another accomplishment that occurred during his tenure. When Gordon took the reins at AEDC, the COVID-19 was beginning to shift from a pandemic to an endemic phase. Gordon said it was important to restore a sense of community and “Air Force family” atmosphere that the disease had weakened at its height due to lockdowns, changes in the work environment and other factors.

Gordon lauded those in the Test Support Division, or TSD, for their efforts to bring quality of life improvements to Arnold.

“One of my big three objectives was how do we improve quality of life, and I think they’ve just been knocking it out of the ballpark and they keep going with that,” he said.

These efforts included car shows, changes to improve the annual Christmas Party and the institution of Hap’s After Hours in Café 100 at Arnold AFB, as well as off-base outings open to personnel such as skydiving and hang gliding. Gordon said such activities help strengthen personal relationships among team members, adding this stronger bond will provide greater cohesion when the same team members must work together to solve a difficult problem in the workplace.

“I’ve been very, very proud of TSD for making a lot of efforts there,” he said. “I know FSS [Facility Support Services] has really kind of leaned into that, and I’ve sat back and gone to all these different events and been like, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m talking about,’ because I was trying to get them to the point of ‘try it.’ If it doesn’t work, so be it. I’m never going to jump down your throat and yell at you that you tried something and it didn’t work. We’ll just learn and then we’ll adapt and we’ll pivot. We’ll just keep moving along the way.”

Another achievement Gordon touched upon was the return of the McKinley Climatic Laboratory at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, from the purview of AEDC to the Eglin-headquartered 96th Test Wing. The MCL is used for testing large items and systems for aircraft. It is capable of producing a temperature range lower than minus-60 degrees Fahrenheit and greater than 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Climatic conditions including ice, snow, wind, rain, solar radiation and sand can be simulated during testing.

The laboratory, which had been under the AEDC umbrella since 2016, was returned to the 96th Test Wing as part of a realignment.

“That was the right thing to do from the standpoint of just improving efficiencies and logistics between the 96th Wing and AEDC,” Gordon said. “That facility came to us, we needed to make a lot of different improvements to kind of help modernize it, improve it along the way.

“I think what we returned back to Eglin was in pretty outstanding shape, and my sense is now that we’ve aligned the pay schedules and the people, that mission will then be much more efficiently executed than what it is we could have done solely in and of ourselves to put that back under Eglin Air Force Base again.”

Gordon described watching the teams from Arnold and Eglin come together to complete the transfer as “awesome,” adding he regularly checked in with 96th Test Wing Commander and former AEDC commander Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Geraghty throughout the process. The feedback shared by both sides was positive, Gordon said.

“I’m really pleased to say the date that we predicted that would happen is exactly when it happened, and they are doing well,” Gordon said. “That didn’t delay at all. We received total support out of the center [Air Force Test Center], and it was kind of a non-event at the end of the day, which is what you’re looking for. You don’t want drama. You want things to be as boring and smooth as they possibly can, and that worked out pretty well.”

Gordon also mentioned infrastructure upgrades were completed at Holloman AFB, during his tenure as AEDC commander. The 704th Test Group based at Holloman is part of AEDC.

“We received great support from the center [Air Force Test Center] on that,” Gordon said. “The Major Command, Air Force Materiel Command, has done great for us on that. I really do have to give a lot of credit to Col. [Karl] Seekamp [704th Test Group Commander] and his team in terms of leading that out on the Holloman side to be able to position a lot of the facilities and the test locations out there to be what they need to be.”

Such work is vital as AEDC has an important role to play in national defense, Gordon said, adding work performed throughout the complex helps ensure that multiple branches of the U.S. military are able to get their technologies deployed and fielded.

“This is a jewel. It is a national treasure,” Gordon said of AEDC. “I’ve always been mindful of that. That weight has always been on my shoulders thinking about, ‘How are we positioning this place so that it will always be that forefront?’ And, because there’s only one – there’s no other AEDC in the free world – it’s not as though we can turn and look to some other place and go, ‘They can do all the same work that we can.’ We certainly have partnerships out there but, at the end of the day, this facility is exceptionally unique, and that’s true of all our different sites.”

And the U.S. is positioned now for great power competition, a necessity if the nation is to compete with a well-funded, technically savvy adversary, Gordon said.

“A good chunk of what the Secretary of the Air Force needs to be able to properly position the force for great power competition, a lot of the technology that needs to happen for that, that needs to happen here at Arnold because we’re kind of that funnel where, if you expect to make these high-end capabilities, it really starts with the men and women and the equipment that we have in the complex to make that happen,” Gordon said.

Highlights

Gordon said he enjoyed the opportunity to work with organizations, elected officials and citizens throughout the communities around Arnold Air Force Base during his time as AEDC commander.

“This community has been outstanding,” he said. “They love the military. They have a certain place in their heart for the Airmen and the men and women who work here at AEDC.”

To help ensure the relationship between Arnold AFB and the community remains strong, the Honorary Commander program was launched at Arnold in March 2024. The first-of-its-kind program at the installation allows several local business and community leaders selected by AEDC leadership to gain insight into the mission, policies and programs of the Air Force, Air Force Materiel Command, Air Force Test Center and AEDC.

“It was cool to actually have the full induction ceremony and to actually welcome our initial cadre of Honorary Commanders from a lot of the local leadership of the area,” Gordon said.

And Gordon reiterated that a major highlight of his time leading AEDC was the opportunity to work with team members across the complex.

“The men and women here are truly inspirational,” Gordon said. “I keep a little gratitude journal. I’ve been writing in it for years and years and years. Usually, at some entry somewhere during the week, as I’m writing into that journal, I’ll write, ‘And I’ve got a good team.’

“I’m grateful for having just a fantastic team, and I really do believe that. The mission that we perform is so critical to the defense of democracy and freedom around the world.”

Because of that, Gordon took the opportunity to, as he has in the past, convey to members of Team AEDC that when they pass through an installation entry gate to begin their shift, they are not just coming to work. They are coming to a purpose.

“The thing that we serve is so much larger than any one of us individually,” Gordon said. “It’s such a life calling and a privilege to be able to go do this that I knew I would miss that instantly. So between the state itself, between the mission, between the people that we have here, this is such a gem, not just in the world of AFMC, not just in the Air Force, but I think in the country. It’s such a gem and such a privilege to be here that I knew I would miss it from day one.”