Alumni Bio: Colonel Paul McLaughlin
By Cadet Casey Smith
Colonel Paul McLaughlin is the Chief Airfield Operations Officer for Air Mobility Command (AMC) He received a bachelor’s degree in Physics and a master’s degree in business administration. The information in this article comes from an interview that took place on 2 December 2013 near the Air Force ROTC Detachment 207 building between Colonel McLaughlin and myself, Cadet Casey Smith. Some background information to go along with this article is that the Colonel graduated from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and Detachment 206, which was absorbed by Det 207 at St. Louis University. The interview covers questions about airfield management and control and life in the US Air Force.
So what does Colonel McLaughlin do in the Air Force?
Right now, Colonel McLaughlin is the Chief of Airfield Operations division at AMC. He is in charge of a 40-person staff along with air traffic at all 13 AMC locations and the other 2500 airfields across the world under AMC control. He is responsible for air traffic control, airfield management and suitability, airspace management, weather, and terminal instrument procedures. Basically to make sure that all airfields and bases are fully functional and there are no obstructions or problems with the landing strips or dangers around the airfield that would hinder air mobility operations throughout the Air Force.
How did Colonel McLaughlin get to where he is at?
The Colonel started out as an Air Traffic Controller in 1986 when air control was still part of the communications squadron (now it is part of the operations support squadron.) Once the switch was made to Ops Support airfield operations was added to their responsibilities. He started out as a flight commander after that and managed deployment policies under the Air Force Flight Standards Agency for airfield management and traffic control career fields. He then became a squadron commander, not in the airfield operations field, but under recruiting which gave a broader picture of the Air Force. He then, afterward, was the Deputy Mission Support Group Commander which wasn’t quite in the track of an airfield management career just like recruiting.
What is a day in the life of Colonel McLaughlin?
“Some days are busy and some days are not.” The Colonel pointed out. He now has around four large projects that have Air Force-level implications that require him working on. One is with the NIGA (National Intelligence Geospatial Agency) that works with the flight publications for the DOD. This project helps with finding out information and policies for airfields throughout the world and what needs to be done to fly into them. Another job is to go through headquarters and review different MAJCOM (Major Command) publications to make sure they meet the needed requirements that AMC operates in. He works to make sure that there are no obstructions that would make an approach unsafe. For an example how wind farms can effect radar by bouncing around the signal in Travis AFB, California.
What are some of the challenges of Air Traffic Control?
“If you’re a good air traffic controller, then there aren’t going to be any problems keeping aircraft at three miles of separation and 1000 feet elevation.” There are times when aircraft get close but modern technology such as proximity detectors they can stay at a safe distance. Usually only people who don’t follow the procedures or if there are some poorly-written procedures that make things close. Usually the only close calls or dangerous flying happens in Afghanistan due to poor radar or needing to take evasive actions.
What advice does Colonel McLaughlin have for those interested in airspace management?
It is an exciting career field when you’re a flight commander leading 50-100 people. Things change every day and is a very dynamic and interesting environment. Some days you get to go up in the tower and control traffic or working on a project on the airfield that aircraft can avoid and get around things like construction. Headquarters and staff jobs can be a little “boring” but while you’re on the line it is very exciting and busy. People are easily putting in 10-12 hours as a flight commander taking care of people or a project they are working on. 27 years into the job the Colonel is still having fun and keeping busy. Every base has an airfield management officer and requires the work along with it.
Are there any extra classes or training that would help someone looking at this career field?
The only thing the Colonel thought of was Airfield Safety. Military training and experience has really prepared Colonel McLaughlin. He graduated with a degree in Physics and the only airfield management training he has is from Air Force and military training. Experience is really the best teacher because an Airfield Operations Officer really needs to apply different lessons from other situations to the career field.
How similar are USAF and AMC policies to the FAA?
The signs and a lot of the procedures are the similar. AMC flies similar to passenger planes, taking personnel or cargo from one place to another and have to fly into a lot of the same airfields and thus follow the same procedures. Fighter planes are different because they have different landing and approach procedures but the basic rules are the same. The only thing different are tactical landing and takeoffs to train pilots for flights in places like Afghanistan. The US Air Force controls about 15-20% or US airspace and has to follow the same procedures as the planes that might fly into that airspace.
So what is Colonel McLaughlin’s best memory in the USAF?
When the Colonel was a Recruiting Squadron Commander he was working the lunch hour at an inner-city school with a new recruiter and flight chief. Basically, just talking to the kids about the Air Force and to gain interest. During the last of four lunch periods he went out to talk to kids at their table about the Air Force and all of a sudden he was talking to about 15-20 kids all very interested in the Air Force because of what he was saying. He really just liked to talk to young people about the Air Force and see their interest.
What is the best part of Officer/Air Force life?
Colonel McLaughlin describes “leading and interacting with other people” as the best part of the job. Any airfield is going to have an Airfield Operations Officer and likely going to have one or two officers there working with about 50-100 enlisted in the flight. Getting to know them and mentor them to guide them toward a leadership position and watching them grow. But you do have to have that desire to lead and every officer should strive to become a squadron commander.
Where was Colonel McLaughlin’s favorite place to live?
Colonel McLaughlin’s favorite base was Bitburg Air Base in Germany. He spent three years there in 1991-1994 when the base was closed. It had three squadrons of F-15’s. Just being in Germany was a great experience and all of the places he’s seen and the people he met, including his wife, in Germany were awesome. It was a very personal level at the unit level with a good recognition of leadership. It was a fun place both on the professional side and on the recreational side, whether skiing in the Alps or Oktoberfest.
What have been some of the jobs that stood out to Colonel McLaughlin?
Airfield Operations at Rammstein, Germany stood out for the Colonel when he took over the job of flight Commander when the previous commander got fired. He quickly had to build up the morale and trust of the air crew and air traffic control by getting to know the enlisted and officers to fix the problems that arose before he got there. Also being a recruitment officer for the Midwest was a challenge to start with but was also fun to get out there and talk to people about the Air Force.
What award does Colonel McLaughlin feel the most accomplished to receive?
The Colonel was most proud of the Bronze Star for being deployed in Afghanistan for a year. He was dealing with private security and teaching the Afghani army how to make a private enterprise to take over from some of the contractors that we were hiring to take control of the air bases. It wasn’t exactly Airfield Operations but it was still hard to do.
What advice does Colonel McLaughlin have for cadets in ROTC now?
Take advantage of your schooling. Participate in the ROTC program as much as you can. If you find something that you really like then take the time and the extra effort to find out all you can about it before you get into that job. If anyone has any questions go over to Scott Air Force Base or another base close by to learn more from someone who actively works in that career field.
If you have any other questions or wish to get into contact with Colonel McLaughlin please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or Colonel McLaughlin at 618-229-3316 or email@example.com.
- Learn more about SLU’s Air Force ROTC Detachment 207