After four decades, General Keys calls it a career

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Cindy Dorfner
  • Air Combat Command Public Affairs
After four decades in uniform, the Air Force's current longest serving commissioned officer retires Oct. 1.

Gen. Ronald E. Keys, commander of Air Combat Command, is saying goodbye to the service he joined June 4, 1967. Suggesting there have been a lot of changes in his 40 years would be an understatement. Still, the general narrowed down the most significant change he's seen to training.

He said he was "dreadfully and poorly" prepared to go to war in 1969. After initial pilot training, then-Lieutenant Keys went on to learn to fly the F-4 Phantom II at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. While there, an F-4 crashed at George AFB in California doing air-to-air maneuvering, causing the school to cancel air-to-air training for his class. Without that experience, General Keys said he was lucky to have survived the Vietnam War.

"I went off to war without the appreciation of how to really fly the F-4," he said. "I was just fortunate enough that I got through 211 missions without killing myself, frankly."

He said he learned to fly the F-4 mainly through osmosis.

"I flew a lot - on the wing of old, experienced guys," he said. "I watched, learned and absorbed."

Now all Airmen - not just pilots - are much better prepared, because of the Air Force's high level of training, he said.

One thing that hasn't changed is the level of commitment General Keys sees from the force - Airmen of discipline, courage and commitment. As commander of the largest major command, responsible for organizing, training, equipping and maintaining combat ready forces, he said he witnesses this resolve daily.

"What renews my soul is the enthusiasm that I see out there, the inventiveness and the commitment to get things done," he said.

Today's Airmen show this tenacity, he said, despite the current challenges facing the service, including a reduction in the force.

General Keys knows all about force shaping. He was faced with leaving the service when he met two "SERB" boards while he was a wing commander. So, after a career spanning five decades, he had this advice for today's Airmen: "Focus on your job. That's what's going to be looked at in this time of reduction - who can do their job and who can't, who causes trouble and who doesn't. Also, take an honest assessment of how well you're doing. If you do those things, it will carry most people through this time of reduction.

Force shaping is just one issue General Keys faced as the leader of the Air Force's largest major command. When he began the job in May 2005, he laid out five focus areas for his tenure at ACC - people, expeditionary operations, recapitalization, organization and transformation.

Some, he said, have been more successful than others. He's most proud of the progress in the expeditionary realm.

"I think that's probably the area in which we've done the best, making sure we're an expeditionary force," he said. "We have to focus on the fact that we can on a moment's notice pick-up, pack-up, deploy, plug-in, and operate at the ends of the Earth for as long as required. We're not a garrison Air Force. The taxpayers didn't hire us to relax and have a good time at Langley AFB. They pay our wages so that we go and win America's wars when we're called upon to do so... Whether those "wars" are saving lives, protecting people, or actual combat."

More difficult to pin down has been recapitalization. In the times of a tight budget, finding money to buy what the force needs is a challenge.

"We're now flying airplanes at ages we've never flown airplanes before," he said. "We have an absolutely great maintenance force that keeps those planes flying. But, they do so at extended timeframes, they do so on the backs of the workers and we need to buy a new force, quite frankly.

"Most of us don't own 40-year-old cars, but if we do, we drive it on Sunday when there's not much traffic, when it's not raining and the sun is out, and we drive it slowly. But I'm taking all my '40-yr-old cars' and in effect, I'm taking them to Indianapolis and I'm racing them everyday and that's dangerous because you can't know what's going to break next."

While challenges have been plentiful, General Keys, who spent his career in the cockpits of the A-10, F-4, F-15 and F-16, said his last job as an Airman has been gratifying.

"Everything about it has been rewarding," he said. "You're working with a command that's on the leading edge of combat capability. You're working with a command that at any given time has 8,000 to 10,000 people deployed - many of them in harm's way. So, you're working those issues that are very important, not only to Air Combat Command and to the Air Force, but also to our country.

"I think my most rewarding times are when I go out on base visits and talk to people who are actually getting the job done. In the face of people cuts and in the face of not having enough money, in the face of rapid change, you get to see people who are very adaptive, who are very committed, you get to see those Airmen of discipline and courage and commitment and honor, and that to me is the best part of being COMACC."

After retiring, General Keys and his wife, Valerie, will move to their home in the Washington, D.C. area, where he said he'll definitely have a job.

"Valerie has told me either I'll need a job or I'll be in the front yard for eight hours a day - I'm not going to be reorganizing her kitchen for the next 40 years."

The general said he's excited about the opportunities he'll face in the "civilian" workforce.

"I don't plan on sitting on my front porch in a rocking chair and watching the world go by... There are lots of interesting and difficult problems that need to be solved over the next 40 years."