Gen. David Goldfein, the battle-tested combat pilot who was sworn in Friday as the 21st Air Force chief of staff, takes charge at a time when the service is facing momentous challenges.

Airmen are stressed out, and stretched thin. At a time when end strength is at nearly its lowest point since the Air Force was created, airmen continue to wage war in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan while trying to shore up allies and deal with flare-ups around the world. Airframes are aging, and finding enough maintainers to keep birds in the air is a constant challenge. There are budget battles, fights with lawmakers, and ongoing debates over the futures of aircraft such as the F-35 and A-10.

But those who know him best say Goldfein’s “quiet confidence,” thoughtful nature and ample concern for the well-being of the airmen under his command make him the ideal leader for an Air Force at a crossroads.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter lauded Goldfein’s experience as head of Air Forces Central Command, director of the Joint Staff, and vice chief. During that time, Carter said Goldfein developed a deep knowledge of the Middle East, which is crucial at a time when the Air Force is leading the war against the Islamic State.

“He’s exactly what the Air Force needs right now,” said retired Gen. Larry Spencer, who preceded Goldfein as vice chief of staff. “We will see great things out of him. He’s a real visionary. He’s a really good listener. He doesn’t yell and scream at people, but he commands respect because he knows what he wants done.”

At an late April press conference, three days after President Obama nominated Goldfein to replace Gen. Mark Welsh as chief of staff, Carter introduced him as “a tested warrior, one of the most proven strategic thinkers across our joint force.

“As director of the Joint Staff and as vice chief of staff of the Air Force, Dave has also demonstrated superb skill as a consensus builder and a manager,” Carter said. “During a time when our joint force’s need for the Air Force’s global vigilance, global reach and global power has only increased, Gen. Goldfein has helped to expertly manage competing demands on the Air Force’s 55 combat-coded fighter squadrons and other forces.”

Carter noted that when the nomination was announced, Goldfein was at a summit for wounded warriors and caregivers near Hurlburt Field, Florida. Also attending that conference, Carter said, was retired Chief Master Sgt. Jeremy Hardy, one of the pararescuemen who helped rescue Goldfein when his F-16 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over Serbia in 1999.

“Dave’s never forgotten the men and women he served alongside, nor his responsibility to the people under his command,” Carter said. “That’s important to me, and it’s important to the president.”

Goldfein is a command pilot with more than 4,200 hours flying the C and D variants of the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the stealth F-117A Nighthawk and the unmanned MQ-9 Reaper, as well as the T-37, T-38 and MC-12W.

He graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1983 and soon thereafter began his undergraduate pilot training at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. He worked his way up the ranks, holding multiple commands at the squadron, group and wing level. He became director of operations for Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia in 2009, commanded Air Forces Central Command in Southwest Asia from 2011 to 2013, and served as director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon for two years before earning his fourth star and becoming vice chief last August.

‘The wheels are turning’

Spencer was greatly impressed by Goldfein during the latter’s time as director of the Joint Staff.

“You could see the respect that the service chiefs had for him when he spoke,” Spencer said. “He doesn’t talk just to be talking, and everybody knows that. So when he comments, people tend to turn around and listen. When he injects something, it’s pretty valuable.”

Spencer said he witnessed several situations on the Joint Staff where Goldfein absorbed large amounts of data to hone in on critical problems and find the solutions. Spencer said Goldfein worked very well with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey.

“He’s got so much initiative and drive, he doesn’t wait for somebody to tell him what to do,” Spencer said. “If something happened overnight, Dave’s going to come in in the morning and be ready to go. He will already have scheduled meetings with those on the Joint Staff that had the critical information. So when he went in to see [Dempsey] he already had boiled down what the key issues were and was able to offer some key recommended decisions. You look at Dave and you can see the wheels turning, because he’s always thinking ahead.”

In a February interview with Military Times, Goldfein said he believes the core missions of the Air Force remain the same in the face of improving technology and changing global politics. Goldfein’s selection appears to indicate that Carter wants an airman in the job with fighter combat experience, especially at a time when the Air Force is waging a heavy air campaign against Islamic State militants.

“We have five missions that we were given in the National Security Act of 1947, and those missions really haven’t changed significantly over time,” he said. “They’ve morphed, and we’ve got to think about them, but air and space superiority is something that we as an Air Force do that’s central to what we’re bringing the nation.”

And Goldfein’s selection could give the venerable A-10 Warthog a new lease on life for engagements against ISIS.

“When we made decisions on retiring the A-10, we made those decisions prior to ISIL,” Goldfein told Military Times. “We were not in Iraq, we were coming out of Afghanistan to a large extent. We didn’t have a resurgent Russia [during] the time frame that we were talking about retiring the A-10, and so when the assumptions change and they don’t pan out, we’ve got to be agile enough to adjust.”

The fact that Goldfein, like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was shot down in combat may help to engender a more amicable relationship between the Air Force and Capitol Hill, which has been quite testy in recent years. The general’s openness to keeping the A-10 should help as well.

“He has an excellent bio and an excellent reputation,” McCain said. “From everything I’ve heard, he is pretty impressive.”

Putting airmen first

Aside from navigating the choppy waters of the Pentagon and Capitol Hill, Goldfein is widely known as a leader who views the well-being of his airmen as a top priority.

Chief Master Sgt. Shelina Frey, the command chief of Air Mobility Command, worked for Goldfein as his command chief at AFCENT from 2011 to 2013. She describes him as a fair, honest leader who doesn’t rush to judgment.

“He believes in peeling the onion back – ‘Let’s see what we’re truly dealing with,’” Frey said. “When a decision was made by Gen. Goldfein, you better believe it was the right decision, based on all that he knew and had. At the end of the day, everybody felt comfortable with the decision that was made. You might not have liked it, but you certainly understood that he put a lot of thought into the process.”

Frey first met Goldfein at ACC in 2009, when she was the first sergeant there and he was its director of operations. Their first encounter was to handle a disciplinary issue with one of his non-commissioned officers, and she said she was impressed by how he methodically gathered information from all sides before coming to a decision on how to handle it.

Spencer said that while Goldfein presents a calm demeanor, “that doesn’t mean he’s a pushover.”

“If he makes a decision, after hearing all the information, his expectation is that decision will be carried out,” Spencer said.

Frey also said Goldfein was a warm leader, who always considered the enlisted airmen under his command. Frey said he regularly asked for and valued her input on how the enlisted force there was doing, and took time to explain the rationale behind his decisions, so she could in turn explain them to enlisted.

“When he made decisions, he would look to me and say, ‘Chief, am I stressing our airmen?’” Frey said. “‘Do our airmen have what they need to be successful? Chief, if none of this stuff makes sense to you, please let me know. I need them to understand what we’re doing, why they’re here.’ I just thought that was amazing that those are the things he thought about.”

Spencer agreed, and said that while Goldfein “is not going to shoot someone for making a mistake,” he also expects that airman to learn from that mistake in the future.

Frey also said Goldfein didn’t publicly dress down airmen when they did something wrong, and handled problems behind closed doors.

Frey said she jokingly called Goldfein the Mad Hatter, due to the way he could orchestrate the chaotic elements at play in AFCENT. But unlike the Alice in Wonderland character, Frey said, Goldfein turned chaos into order.

Spencer also said Goldfein is the kind of leader who makes a point to acknowledge and speak to junior officers and enlisted troops.

“He’s the kind of guy who would stop his car driving through the gate and spend a few minutes talking to the cop on the gate,” Spencer said. “If a young finance troop processes his travel voucher, he’d walk up to the counter and say, ‘Thank you, you really did a good job, I appreciate it.’ He doesn’t walk by people.”

Frey agreed, and said she often saw him stop to ask young airmen on their first deployment how they were doing, and if they had talked to their family recently.

“Nobody who sat in a meeting with Gen. Goldfein was just another face in the room,” Frey said. “Everybody who sat in the room with Gen. Goldfein was a team player. The things they were thinking mattered to him.”

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