Sunday, August 10, 2014

Q+A: Col. Richard Boutwell: New boss talks education at Nellis, air show, budget and fighter jet safety

Col. Richard H. Boutwell is the Commander, 99th Air Base Wing, Nellis Air Force Base on Monday, August 4, 2014.

Col. Richard Boutwell is settling into his new role as “mayor” of Nellis Air Force Base. Boutwell, 99th Air Base wing commander, took over as head of the installation June 27, succeeding Col. Barry Cornish, who left for a post in Hawaii.

An Alabama native, Boutwell has 23 years of Air Force experience, including service at the Pentagon and in Japan, where he commanded the 44th Fighter Squadron at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa.

In his new role as commander of Nellis, Boutwell returns to the base where he was stationed as a member of the Thunderbirds air demonstration team from 1999 to 2003.

He arrives a year after Nellis suffered federal budget cutbacks that triggered temporary furloughs for civilian personnel, prompted cancellation of the 2013 Aviation Nation air show and grounded Red Flag combat exercises for a session, among other effects.

You’ve been on the job for less than two months. In two years, how will you measure success?

A lot of it is perception — leaving the place better than you got it. I got it in great hands.

But with a fresh set of eyes, you always have the opportunity to find a new mission or a new process that may create efficiencies or greater rewards for our airmen and their families, like bringing a charter school on the base.

Would a charter school be a priority for you?

It’s one of the things we’re exploring, to see if we can bring it to fruition. We have a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade elementary school on the base, so we’re trying to build on that program to expand it through eighth grade and at least get folks through middle school. Having that charter school would certainly help.

How have you liked the job so far?

I’m impressed every day. To get to watch our airmen do their jobs with pride, precision and efficiency — to me, it’s very humbling and very prideful. In that father-like mentality, whenever you see your kid do something good, you just swell up with pride.

Is Aviation Nation going to come back this year?

It is, in November. Under sequestration, it was canceled because we were trying to be fair to our civilian employees. When we’re telling them they can’t come to work and we can’t pay them, it would have been in very poor taste for us to have an air show.

Does that mean the budget situation has improved?

I would say it has stabilized. We’re still having to make tough choices.

There has been talk of commissaries closing. Is that something Nellis might see in the future?

There are discussions. Nothing is off the table.

Whenever we do look at those, we look to see what the community can support. What do they have, and is it in close proximity? Can they cover the offsets, as well as the prices? All of those go into making those very tough choices. At the end of the day, we have to have zero balance in our checkbook, so those closures are something we’re looking at.

F-35s were in the news a lot lately because of technological problems. Nellis has four. Are there safety concerns?

No, the safety of that aircraft is doing very well. It’s not unlike any other aircraft we’ve brought online: You learn something new every day. And they do a great job of troubleshooting those.

Is it worth the price tag?

Absolutely. When you look at the survivability of fourth-generation aircraft against the increasing threat of some of our potential adversaries, it isn’t acceptable. And if you look at the life cycle of those aircraft, they’re already nearing the end of their lives. So we have to have a replacement.

When you’re in the air, every second counts. To have an aircraft that can take information from multiple sources and fuse it together and give it to the pilot to interpret and employ when he’s at 600 mph, that is something that will help him survive in combat and be able to accomplish that mission and come home.

* Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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