MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, Romania – No man contributed more to the first repatriation mission through Mihail Kogalniceanu than Air Force Lt. Col. Todd McCoy.
Service loyalties notwithstanding, 100 soldiers of 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, literally applauded the performance of the Air Force officer as their “freedom bird” touched down in Romania the night of Feb. 22 after a five-hour flight from Afghanistan.
Key leaders and warfighters from four services, three nations and two components contributed enormously to the creation and operation of the joint, combined facility at MK Air Base, but the commander of the 780th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron took things a step farther – he not only led the organization that operates the airfield but personally piloted the C17A Globemaster III transporting the troops from Afghanistan.
“I’ve been flying transit missions for over a decade, but even now there’s nothing more fulfilling than bringing the guys back home,” McCoy said. “Being a part of that first mission and seeing the smiles on their faces when we reached MK and the guys realized they were a big step closer to home was truly awesome.”
The Saturday night transit flight held special meaning for the 38-year-old Air Force leader and pilot due to its circumstances, but “Todd” – called by his middle name since childhood – McCoy spends almost as much time in the air as on solid ground.
Born in coal country in Beckley, W.Va., and raised in the Charleston area, McCoy showed more aptitude for flying than walking as a young child.
“I had toys and model airplanes all over the place,” he said with a smile. “Every Lego block I owned was used to make airplanes.”
At a time when most of his peers planned to serve alongside Batman or the Incredible Hulk rather than soldiers or Marines, the 4-year-old McCoy told his mother confidently, “I am going to attend the Air Force Academy and fly airplanes.”
A strong student who lettered in four sports at Nitro High School – named for the nitroglycerine industry that exploded locally in support of the first World War – McCoy finished well ahead of the pack in the classroom and the pool as well as on the soccer field and cross country track. But success, sports and girls never completely eclipsed his soaring ambition. He pursued and ultimately secured a coveted slot at the Air Force Academy through the office of then-U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd. Three weeks after graduating high school in 1993, the young cadet arrived in Colorado Springs, Colo., for basic training.
“It was definitely a learning experience, going from life in a small town in West Virginia to life as a student at the Air Force Academy,” he recalled.
McCoy clearly embraced and internalized the academy vision.
“I learned about honor and leadership. These were some of our key tenets – and they were essential to success at the academy and in the Air Force.”
But life even at the Air Force Academy included its share of lighter moments. Unsurprisingly, the "Family Feud" and "Star Trek" jokes that accompanied him throughout his career flourished amid the campus social milieu. McCoy learned to defuse the humor by mining the vein even more skillfully.
“I would tell them, ‘I never met a Hatfield I liked,’” he said with a smile.
Like Army counterparts, Air Force cadets compete academically for their choice of branch. Identified with one of the most prestigious of military – or civilian for that matter – occupations, pilot slots normally attract stiff competition. McCoy performed superbly as a student; but he concedes this made little difference in his career path.
“There was a pilot shortage when I graduated,” he said with a smile. “So anyone who wanted to be a pilot that year and met the requirements made it.”
After six months of general aviation training, pilots “track select” for specific aircraft. Based on his desire to fly passenger missions to and from dirt runways and fond memories of the small military planes that “flew around Charleston all the time” during his boyhood, McCoy selected the C130. He devoted years to mastering the aircraft and its missions, flying around 400 hours per year and progressing from student to pilot to instructor and evaluator. Then-Capt. McCoy’s tenure as a C130 pilot at Pope Army Airfield, adjacent to sprawling Fort Bragg in south central North Carolina, brought him into close contact with soldiers conducting air drop and transportation missions. He forged a meaningful professional bond with the paratroopers he supported during “hundreds” of air-drop missions.
“The fact that we have lives in our hands when that green light goes on is not lost on any pilot,” he said. “Air drop missions involve serious risk to the guys going out the back of the aircraft. We take our commitment to them very seriously – we take it to heart.”
Selected for promotion to major, McCoy moved on to larger roles and larger aircraft. He commenced training on a new system, but from a much broader base of knowledge and experience.
“It was just a matter of learning the nuances of the aircraft and what it brings to the fight,” he said. Interestingly, he added, the C17, now widely viewed as the primary intertheater transport aircraft, “was meant for oversized and outsized unconventional cargo. It’s not the most effective passenger mover; but it’s the safest because of its defensive systems and tactical capabilities.”
McCoy’s three-year tenure with the U.S. Transportation Command joint operations and plans directorate, based at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., immersed him further in the world of inter-service collaboration.
“Around 50 percent of the team was Army, with the remainder divided among other services,” he said. “So it had the feel of an Army mission. We all speak English, but it’s a different flavor from one service to another.”
The West Virginian’s 14 deployments – the vast majority of them combat missions – reinforced his growing commitment to a joint, combined philosophy of his fundamental charter.
“I feel like I’ve been ‘joint’ in one sense or another ever since I was a lieutenant,” he said. He developed a special affinity for the soldiers he worked alongside throughout his career. “Almost everything that’s gone out the back door of the aircraft has been Army, whether it’s a 42,000-pound road grater or a stick of paratroopers at Fort Bragg.”
Those missions prominently included an air drop of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division into Iraq in support of the campaign’s sole air drop operation.
Twice deployed to Transit Center Manas in support of passenger airlift operations and molded by a career of interservice collaboration into a joint thinker, leader and flyer, McCoy fit naturally into the MK mission concept.
“We knew that Manas would shut down, and we began planning well ahead of the projected closure,” he recalled. “All eyes turned to MK. After three separate proofs of mission we verified MK as the ideal site for the mission.”
From the outset, planners integrated a variety of collaborators into the concept of operations.
“The groundwork for success was laid,” he said, “but a number of obstacles remained. We overcame all the problems precisely through the cooperation of soldiers, airmen and host nation partners.”
“The biggest success is truly the communication among all the partners,” he added. “Were it not for the ability of 21st Theater Sustainment Command, Black Sea Area Support Team, Romanian airport and Romanian military as well as the Air Force partners to see success through a single lens, we would never have succeeded. That single perspective on what right looks like has allowed us to achieve a remarkable degree of unity of effort. In a nutshell, we’ve managed, through partnership, to turn every short-term challenge into a long-term success.”
McCoy and other key leaders, including the mission’s senior Army and Air Force officers, arrived at MK in early January to implement the vision. They found a company of engineers from the 21st TSC, a handful of planners, base support cadre and Romanian officials hard at work but far from an even match against the tidal wave of transit missions projected for February and March. As the small but able team of 21st TSC, Black Sea Area Support Team and Romanian staff accomplished daily missions on a shoestring and supporting staff trickled in, leaders established a conceptual framework that blossomed into initial and, ultimately, full operational capability during late January and February.
McCoy’s EAS took charge of airfield operations – essentially the main effort for a passenger transit mission.
“We execute the combat airlift of passengers to and from Afghanistan,” he said. “And that means not only the airlift piece but the maintenance of the aircraft, aerial port operations, loading and unloading of commercial wide body aircraft as well as the C17s, and command and control – everything necessary to support these aircraft and the onward movement mission.”
Like so many of his previous missions, command of the 780th evolved into an unorthodox but immensely rewarding joint, combined journey.
“The 780th has to be the most extraordinary EAS on the Air Force map,” he said with a smile, noting his 130-airman team includes not only the air crew and staff that form the core of any comparable organization but assets normally associated with a contingency response element. “The Army provides a lot of our life-support infrastructure,” he noted. “But since we also have specific mission-oriented requirements, we also have organic medical, maintenance and aerial port assets more akin to what you’d have in a CRE.”
Due largely to McCoy’s efforts, the air operation cruised to impressive successes notwithstanding sporadic turbulence and stormy skies – far from metaphoric in the cool, damp, sometimes snowy and frequently foggy Romanian winter. The MK transit triumph doesn’t distill easily into superficial statistics; but it merits attention that transit facilities and operations existing only on maps and PowerPoint slides in December reached the 5,000 passenger mark in February and 10,000 by mid-March.
Despite inevitable friction amid overlapping missions and intense competition for scarce resources, McCoy, colleagues and senior leaders achieved remarkable consensus and unity of effort as they created and operated the emerging passenger transit center.
Col. Michael C. Snyder, the deputy commanding officer of the 21st TSC and officer in charge of the MK Regional Support Element, collaborated closely with McCoy throughout the critical months of the mission. He credits the 780th commander with strong leadership and top notch team building.
“He’s a mission-oriented commander who leads from the front and leads by example,” the Dallas, Ore., native said. “They’re responsible for flying people in and we’re responsible for supporting them on the ground. Our functions are completely interdependent. Everything has to be carefully synched, and he’s responsible not only for executing his mission, but proactive collaboration with all relevant stakeholders to ensure that synchronization is maximized.”
The unique Air Force leadership culture demands technical mastery as well as administrative excellence from its senior personnel. In other services, leadership, planning and organization tend to crowd out technical missions. Air Force officers – especially pilots – can’t afford to neglect their technical craft; hence McCoy remains an avid aviator as well as a battalion-level commander. He mentors, trains and evaluates pilots and crews, typically combining flights with developmental missions. McCoy said he tries to lift off weekly, usually serving as a mentor, instructor and/or evaluator during the flights.
“In any command you want to be credible in commanding the mission – and part of that is being proficient in your main competencies,” he said. “For me that includes piloting the aircraft. It’s part of my skill-set as a pilot and even more so as a commander.”
Air Force Col. Robert L. Dotson of U.S. Air Force Europe, the MK senior airfield authority, played a leading organizational role in the establishment of the passenger transit mission. The San Jose, Calif., native described McCoy as an accomplished aviator and leader who embodies his vision for joint, combined partnership.
“When people ask me to reveal the secret to MK’s overwhelming success as of late,” he said, “I always have the same response for them: teamwork and dedication to the mission! Lt. Col. McCoy epitomizes both concepts in his words and deeds as he leads airfield operations at MK. If it were not for key leaders like Todd modeling proactive collaboration and communication on a daily basis, we simply wouldn’t be seeing the level of joint interdependence and partnership that we are here at MK.”
The grueling days, incessant flights, long hours and still longer tour – Dotson and McCoy signed on for an entire year in contrast with their Airmen and most Army colleagues, who typically serve tenures measured in weeks – might ground lesser leaders. But due largely to the efforts of versatile, innovative leaders who fly airplanes as an additional duty, the MK passenger transit mission took off, gained altitude and shows no signs of losing momentum. As seriously as he takes his command, his mission and his responsibilities as an aviator, McCoy appreciates the human dimension to the operation – unless, perhaps, a Hatfield enters his airspace.
“The mission is fun and it’s only fun because of the great people who are here,” he said. “Everyone wants to get the mission accomplished and it’s that can-do spirit that sets us up for success. That’s the attitude that keeps me going and I think that keeps all of us at MK going.”