Major General Robert B. Patterson’s selfless devotion to growing the special operations mission from Military Airlift Command (MAC) left a legacy with an enormous impact on the organizational structure of today’s Air Force that touches the battles being fought now in Iraq and Afghanistan.
General Patterson was born in Mebane, N.C., in 1933. He attended public schools in Chapel Hill, N.C., and graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1956 as a ROTC Distinguished Graduate. The general received a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from Webster College and is a graduate of Columbia University’s executive program in business administration.
After receiving his pilot wings at Vance AFB, Okla., in October 1957, his first operational assignment was to the 31st Air Rescue Squadron at Clark Air Base, Philippines. It should be noted that between the Korean War and the Viet Nam War, the Air Force had no dedicated active special operations units. Air Rescue units filled the void. This experience would prove invaluable in his later years as a commander and visionary for special operations.
He gained further command and diplomacy skills during follow-on assignments to Lackland AFB, Texas, as aide-de-camp to the Military Training Center commander in 1960 and then as a special assistant to the air deputy of Allied Forces Northern Europe in Oslo, Norway, from 1963 to 1966.
Returning to the United States, General Patterson joined the 39th Tactical Airlift Squadron of the 317th Tactical Airlift Wing, Lockbourne (now Rickenbacker) AFB, Ohio. He departed Lockbourne in March 1970 to serve at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, as an AC-130 gunship aircraft commander, flight examiner and additional duty maintenance officer in the 16th Special Operations Squadron of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing.
After attending Armed Forces Staff College, the general was assigned as an air operations staff officer in the Directorate of Plans, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Washington, D.C., from September 1971 to October 1973. He left the Pentagon to command the 50th Tactical Airlift Squadron, 314th Tactical Airlift Wing, at Little Rock AFB, Ark. While there, he also served as the wing’s assistant deputy commander for operations.
Upon graduation from the Air War College in June 1976, he was assigned to Pope AFB, N.C., as the 317th Tactical Airlift Wing’s assistant deputy commander for operations. He was appointed deputy commander for operations in June 1977 and became wing vice commander in June 1978.
From March 1979 to March 1980, General Patterson served as commander of the 463rd Tactical Airlift Wing, Dyess AFB, Texas. He took the first C-130s and C-141s to Exercise RED FLAG to test airlift concepts, including assault techniques. His gunship night experience played a pivotal role in developing the innovative tactics that the Air Force’s tactical crews still use today. He left another legacy that endures to this day – he conceived the idea to build the Jackrabbit dirt practice Assault Landing Zone. It was reported at the time that “the unique nature of the Jackrabbit project construction and the inter-service cooperation will result in a savings of $56,000 according to officials.” Dirt practice landing zones are still in use today to train C-130 aircrews to conduct assault landings on unprepared surfaces using the full range of loads. The desert nature of the landing zone is considered perfect for training aircrews and ground combat forces in field delivery on desert terrain.
As an integral part of MAC, the wing’s tactical components deployed frequently to Europe, the Pacific, and the Panama Canal Zone to provide air transportation as needed. The general’s tactical airlift unit was awarded the Air Force Outstanding Unit award with Combat “V” device in June 1979. No stranger to aiding those in desperate need, following the devastation of several Caribbean islands by Hurricane David in September 1979 and Hurricane Fredric two weeks later, the 463 TAW flew 28 sorties in support of relief efforts to the islands.
Following a successful command at Dyess AFB, he returned to Pope AFB as commander of the U.S. Air Force Airlift Center and the 317th Tactical Airlift Wing at Pope from March 1980 until February 1981. Four months into his command, as host of the Volant Rodeo airlift competition, General Patterson was the first to include international teams in the competition. A total of 37 teams participated in the 1980 event including four international teams from Australia, Canada, the Federal Republic of Germany and the United Kingdom. General Patterson’s legacy of allied interaction in airlift competitions has significantly enhanced today’s Rodeo competitions. The 2007 Air Mobility Rodeo included nine international competitors and 22 international observers in addition to 38 U.S. Total Force competitive teams. The 317th TAW was named the winner of Airlift Rodeo of 1980.
While at Pope AFB, General Patterson’s unit personnel participated in several exercises in 1980, including DRAGON TEAM, which deployed 2,500 soldiers aboard 23 C-141 aircraft; BRAVE SHIELD, the first deployment of forces under Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force control; and AUTUMN FORGE, in which his wing participated in the largest intercontinental troop and cargo airdrop in history, transporting 600 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division. The following year, his Airmen deployed to Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, for Exercise BRIM FROST, the first in a series of five winter operations exercises that later became known as Exercise NORTHERN EDGE. Under General Patterson’s command, his units garnered an Air Force Outstanding Unit Award and the Military Airlift Command Award for Safety.
In March 1981, he became the assistant chief of staff for plans at Headquarters Military Airlift Command, Scott Air Force Base, Ill., but he was only there a year before he became vice commander of MAC’s 21st Air Force at McGuire AFB, N.J., and then commander in July 1984.
Air Force historians have noted that probably no numbered air force has had so profound and direct impact on saving lives and protecting resources as the 21st Air Force. Certainly, as the deputy commander, General Patterson oversaw operations, which later prepared the command for the more turbulent times to follow in late 1983. First, was Exercise FLINTLOCK ‘82, which consisted of 12 sub-exercises held in ten countries to include Norway, Tunisia, Greece, Liberia, Kenya, Jordan, Italy, France, Denmark and West Germany. All total, nearly 2,700 passengers and 900 tons of cargo were transported, and these units were involved for the first time in the employment portions of the exercise as well as the redeployment phases.
General Patterson’s diplomatic relations with Jordan and Honduras had begun to yield fruit during this time. King Hussein of Jordan first visited troops in the field as technicians for 21 AF taught cargo delivery system rigging and other cargo loading procedures to Jordanian soldiers participating in Exercise SHADOW HAWK ‘82.
In January 1983, 21 AF crews from the 436th , 437th and 438th Military Airlift Wings flew 39 deployment and redeployment missions during Exercise AHUAS TARA I, MAC’s first Honduras-based military exercise. In July of that year, King Hussein of Jordan and several members of his staff were treated to their first ride in a C-5A over that Middle Eastern country.
In the fall of 1983, 21 AF became involved with more somber world events. Following the terrorist bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in which nearly 240 Americans were killed, 21 AF units in Europe were used to airlift service member remains from Beirut IAP to Rhein Main AB, Germany, and eventually to Dover AFB, Dela. In the midst of this, Operation URGENT FURY began as 21 AF aircrews began flying combat airlift missions from various staging bases in the CONUS to Point Salines, Grenada. A record 171 missions were flown, and by nightfall of 25 October, more than 700 MAC aircrew and support personnel were on the islands of Barbados and Grenada. General Patterson was certainly in his element as the senior Air Force officer on Grenada during hostilities. According to his commander, when he deployed, he was known as the field commander who could get things done. That he did – over the next three days, a total of 688 U.S. and foreign medical students and their dependents were evacuated on one C-5A and 17 C-141B missions operating out of Point Salines Airfield and transported to Charleston AFB, S.C., and Dover AFB. One week later, 21 AF provided airlift and crews for disaster relief and resupply missions to bases in the eastern region of Turkey, following a massive 6.0 earthquake, where more than 1,300 people lost their lives.
In July 1984, General Patterson took the helm from Major General Duane H. Cassidy, and two days later personnel from eight 21 AF units began participating in the longest-running land maneuver exercise ever conducted by the U.S. During this Honduras-based event known as AHUAS TARA II, more than 13,000 tons of cargo and nearly 30,000 personnel were airlifted on nearly 300 airlift missions. Army LtGen Jack McMull, XIIIth Airborne Corps Commander, selected General Patterson as Deputy Task Force Commander. A first for an Air Force officer for this traditional US Army position. During his leadership tenure from 1982 to 1984, the 21 AF had primary airlift responsibility for more than 65 percent of all medium and large missions supported by MAC.
During his follow-on assignment as commander of the 322nd Airlift Division, MAC, and deputy chief of staff for airlift forces, U.S. Air Forces in Europe at Ramstein Air Base, West Germany, General Patterson managed tactical airlift forces in the European theater and coordinated strategic airlift from the United States and other origins. He also oversaw all aeromedical operations and administrative airlift missions in the theater, including highly positioned military and civilian U.S. and foreign government officials. In 1985, the 322 AD acquired the peacetime responsibility of airlift management in Africa.
Shortly after the Air Force transferred responsibility for Air Force special operations from Tactical Air Command to MAC, the Commander in Chief of MAC handpicked General Patterson to lead the 23rd Air Force in September 1985. As an AC-130 gunship aviator, General Patterson brought credibility and airlift savvy into the special operations arena. Overseeing the transfer of HC-130M tankers and the remaining HH-53s from the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron to special operations, he built up the overseas Special Operations Forces wings. He emphasized total combat capabilities as opposed to separate mission capabilities of the individual units and aircraft. General Patterson has truly left his fingerprint on today’s special operations missions.
A precursor to today’s Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century, General Patterson undertook Project Forward Look, an effort to reorganize the 23 AF resources more efficiently and employ them more effectively. Air Force historians say that General Patterson circulated a concise statement on Forward Look to his subordinate units so that everyone could “march to the same drumbeat.” Retired USAF Colonel Jerry Thigpen links the general’s proposal to the advancement of the Combat Talon II in his book, “The Praetorian STARShip: the untold story of the Combat Talon.”
His strategic thinking was critical, especially after the birth of the unified U.S. Special Operations Command. For the first time, CONUS-based special operations forces of the Army, Navy and Air Force were unified under one joint commander. The 23 AF served a dual role – still reporting to MAC while also functioning as the air component to USSOCOM. In July 1987, General Patterson issued a statement concerning his understanding of the new relationship among MAC, USSOCOM, other unified commands and Headquarters 23rd AF. Historians recorded this as the most definitive directive concerning command relationships issued by HQs 23 AF. It was this document that informally designated General Patterson’s air component as the Air Force Special Operations Command. His leadership made a lasting impact on AFSOC’s organizational structure and how it fits in with USSOCOM and the rest of the Air Force today.
General Patterson’s achievements ranged from earning various unit and personal awards to changing the status quo in the Air Force recognition program and paved the way for special operations personnel to receive the recognition they deserved. Under his watch, two of his non-commissioned officers earned the distinct honor of being named as one of the Air Force’s Twelve Outstanding Airmen of the Year in 1986 and 1988.
It was no surprise that 23rd Air Force was awarded an Air Force Outstanding Unit Award in December 1986. As General Patterson began 1986, his first full year leading 23 AF, his operations center launched several aircraft and pinpointed the impact area of the Challenger Space Shuttle. The following month, he directed the evacuation of President Ferdinand Marcos and his party from the Philippines via H-3, C-9 and C-141 aircraft. For 10 days following the Chernobyl atomic radiation accident in late April, the general launched 23 WC-130 and WC-135 aircraft to fly 34 aerial sampling sorties, logging a total of more than 300 flying hours.
Longer term achievements for 1985 through the end of 1986 included the cumulative results of Operation Bahamas and Turks, an international effort to curtail drug trafficking in the Caribbean. More than $2.52 billion worth of cocaine and $457.9 million worth of marijuana were confiscated or destroyed. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, more than 2,000 lives were saved during rescue operations headed up by units of the 23rd Air Force. Additionally, General Patterson advanced global reach within the special operations arena, as evidenced by the 23 AF units conducting 64 tropical storm reconnaissance missions in this period alone. He activated the Hurricane Evacuation Coordination Center and moved more than 2,300 DOD aircraft to various refuge bases in the U.S. during eight hurricanes. His emphasis on safety led to the CINCMAC Trophy for Ground Safety in 1986.
Communication was the key to the general’s success as he spoke candidly when visiting his widespread units and testifying before DOD and Congressional committees about his vision for gradually strengthening U.S. special operations forces. He was instrumental in guiding the organizational structure of the emerging unified Special Operations Command according to the AFOUA citation.
General Patterson helped pioneer the use of night vision goggles after a close call during an airfield assault exercise. He integrated NVGs into combat rescue and changed rescue tactics into low-level and blacked-out landings – an advancement over the techniques using wind dummy drops at altitude and circling over the survivor. The general also started the use of NVGs at Dyess and Pope AFBs and later supported the Little Rock AFB commander when he was encountering resistance from his major command to introduce NVGs into the C-130 Formal Training Unit. His work had a far-reaching effect. Inspired by the Air Force’s advancement in safety rates, the Secretary of the Army asked General Patterson to provide NVG training to Army aviators at Hurlburt Field, Florida.
Other noteworthy accomplishments during his tenure include a record-breaking flight of two MH060G aircraft from Antigua to Eglin AFB, Fla., totaling a distance of 1,640 nautical miles in 11.1 hours with six aerial refuelings in 1988. In the same year, his unit demonstrated superior performance by experiencing no Class-A aircraft mishaps, which directly impacted MAC’s zero Class-A mishap record as well.
At his retirement ceremony at Hurlburt Field in October 1989, General Patterson was recognized by CINCMAC as the best field commander in the Air Force. He is a command pilot with more than 9,600 flying hours and 293 combat hours. He has flown 44 types/models of aircraft.
His military decorations and awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross and Bronze Star Medal (which were combat awards earned by destroying 360 vehicles during his gunship days), Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Humanitarian Service Medal and Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm.
The Military Airlift Command security police presented General Patterson the Order of the Bayonet in January 1988 for his significant contributions to security and the ground defense of air bases. The Air Force enlisted force honored him with the Order of the Sword upon retirement.
Following his 33-year Air Force career, General Patterson has spent the last 19 years promoting the field of air mobility. Ranging from speaking at the 2007 Gunship Association reunion to serving as the Airlift/Tanker Association chairman to being an advisory board member of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs to being a member of the Air Commando Association, Jolly Green Association, Air Rescue Association and other special operations organizations, General Patterson has carried his legacy of achievement into the 21st Century. He also has been instrumental in charitable work as a founding member of the Special Operations Fund which provides college money to families of deceased special operations warriors. His credibility has afforded him access to the private sector, as well as the Pentagon and to the people making airlift decisions. One of his colleagues said the general went into the only business that still associated him with the airlift business – special ops and the airlift world – in industry and government alike.
From 1996 to 2000, he was known as a different kind of A/TA chairman – a detail man who got into the inner workings of A/TA. He devoted much of his personal time to grow the organization, both fiscally and its membership. General Patterson was a selfless leader – he wasn’t concerned about what was in it for himself but what was in it for the troops.
General Patterson has made an impressive contribution to the advancement of air mobility for the past five decades. One of the early fathers of Air Force special operations, this visionary leader successfully weaved the critical airlift piece into the special operations culture. He has truly earned the distinction to be added to the honor roll of men and women who have helped build the world’s best air mobility force.
General Robert B. Patterson is genuinely worthy of being named the 2008 Airlift/Tanker Association Hall of Fame Inductee.