Lt. Col. Jacob M. Thornburg is the new 54th Airlift Squadron commander.
The 54th Airlift Squadron partners with the 932d Airlift Wing as one of the first Air Mobility Command and Air Force Reserve Command active associate squadrons under the Total Force Integration model.
The squadron flies four specially configured C-40C aircraft on Special Air Missions as directed by Air Force headquarters to transport members of the Presidential Cabinet and Congress, foreign heads of state and other dignitaries executing global missions vital to U.S. national security.
What led you to join the Air Force?
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Looking back at my childhood, I’ve always had a feeling of wanting to be part of something—I think most people feel this—its human nature. I’ve always wanted to help and serve others. I come from a family that’s served in the Air Force since WWII. My grandfather flew B-24s, my uncle was a B-52 pilot in Vietnam, another uncle a C-130 pilot, and my father served in the nurse corps retiring as a colonel after 25 years. I grew up around the Air Force. No one ever said “you’re going to join the Air Force” but I had a great childhood and was afforded amazing opportunities living in Europe, the Pacific, and various parts of the U.S. It was a good life—my family was happy—so why not join the Air Force? You want to know something? People will continue to join the Air Force and stay if this profession remains a good life, they are motivated, inspired by their leadership, and they feel like what they do matters.
When did you decide you wanted to become an officer?
I never really decided to become an officer. I knew in high school that I wanted to attend college. Back then I was interested in either becoming a doctor, lawyer, or pilot. I chose to become a pilot and I’ll tell you why. It was because I wasn’t sure I could do it; it seemed like the most challenging—and it was.
After 17 years in the Air Force, I’m flying my fifth aircraft. It’s been an amazing journey.
Was there a specific goal in mind when you became an officer?
Let me answer your question this way. I attended my first semester of college at the University of Hawaii in Oahu. While I was enrolled in AFROTC, I decided I wanted to study aviation and earn a pilot slot. After many discussions with my mom and dad we decided it would be smart to transfer to a college that had both. After a semester in Oahu, I attended college at San Jose State University in California studying aviation and participating in AFROTC. I knew earning a pilot slot was the first milestone I needed to achieve to reach my ultimate goal of becoming a pilot in the Air Force.
To say it became an obsession of mine is an understatement.
What is your favorite Air Force memory?
I don’t have just one! I could tell you about the first assault landing I did in a C-17 but the one I’ll share is when I was flying KC-135s and deployed to Al Dahfra AB. At the time the base had B-1s, AWACSs, and KC-135s on the ramp. This memory happens to be the first night of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Our mission that night was to refuel a B-1 who was hitting targets in Baghdad. I remember walking to the aircraft with our crew and seeing the B-1 crew across the flight-line running through their preflight checklists. A few minutes later they taxied to the runway and took off—if you’ve ever seen a B-1 takeoff at night you know it’s an amazing sight; the afterburners, the sound. A few seconds after, we taxied to the runway and departed. Later we met hundreds of miles away in the crowded sky near Iraq, controlled by the AWACS from Al Dahfra. After we offloaded our gas, we navigated our way through hundreds of U.S. and coalition aircraft and returned to base. We taxied to park and shut down our engines. The moment my foot was back on the ground we were met by the wing commander at the bottom of the stairs. He shook our hands, looked us each in the eyes, and said, “job well done fellas ... what you did tonight is important.” There was no fanfare, I wasn’t handed a coin, and the story was not told until now. One of my favorite memories is accomplishing a mission I was trained to do and getting told we did well. And let me add, the wing commander did that for all the crews that night. Most of my favorite Air Force memories are like this: Accomplishing a mission alongside other professionals and knowing at the end of the day what you did mattered and you did it right—it’s what all Airmen want.
What can your Airmen expect from you?
I’ve been entrusted to lead the men and women of the 54th Airlift Squadron. They are an amazing group of Airmen with a unique mission that’s executed alongside the 73rd Airlift Squadron in a Total Force Association. These Airmen can expect my best—my best effort when I fly, open and honest communication (and feedback), transparency when I make decisions, and they can expect to be held accountable. They can also expect me to push them to do their absolute best.
What do you expect from the Airmen?
The 54th Airlift Squadron has a long history of excellence when executing the executive airlift mission. I expect that to continue. For that excellence to continue, they must lead; they need to know they are empowered to lead and empowered to make mistakes (learn and then move on). Leadership in the 54th means holding each other to high standards, respecting one another, valuing each others’ opinions and talents, and holding each other accountable in the jet, in the squadron, and on the road. It also means taking care of each other and our families. We are doing this right now. We have two officers filling six month non-flying AEF deployments. We have airmen checking in on the families, mowing their yards, and preparing for their return.
What advice would you give Airmen?
Be the Airmen you want others to be. Argue and articulate for what’s right. Try to change your part of the Air Force for the better. Trust each other. If you don’t understand guidance, direction, orders, demand clarification and then move out. Be honest with those that lead you and honest with yourself.
What do you look forward to the most?
Flying. Flying is one of the most challenging, rewarding, and honest things you can do. Challenging and rewarding are easily understood.
Let me explain what I mean by honest. We can fake many things; you can’t fake flying. When you fly you receive immediate and honest feedback—flying is clear. Was the preflight done correctly? Was the takeoff too abrupt? Was the landing in the zone? Did we land on time? When flying, you, the pilot next to you, and the rest of the crew know if you are doing it right or wrong. It’s one of the most absolute and honest things we do in the Air Force.
Do you have a leadership philosophy?
This is an interesting question. Can I answer it two years from now? I believe leadership is something you learn over time—I’m not the same leader today that I was when I first joined the Air Force. I’d like to think I’ve learned valuable lessons from others along the way that have helped shape and mold my thinking—made me more aware of my leadership tendencies. I think of leadership as a spectrum. Let me put it this way. I have approximately 35 people in the 54th Airlift Squadron. Each one of them will respond differently to my leadership. At the same time, I cannot have 35 different styles of leadership. I have to be flexible enough to adjust, tweak, and fine tune my leadership as the situation dictates but consistent enough so Airmen know what they can expect from me. I also have to trust people to tell me when I have something in my blind spot.
So as I command the 54th Airlift Squadron, my philosophy is this: Take care of people and their families, provide world-class executive airlift, and leave the 54th better than we found it ... and have fun! That’s probably not a philosophy but those three things will underpin every decision I make and guide me through the next two years.
How do you feel about being at Scott AFB?
My family and I like Scott. It’s a beautiful base with a rich Air Force history surrounded by supportive communities—it’s almost perfect. At the same time, it’s also a busy base with two TFI Wings, a Major Command, Combat and Command, Numbered Air Force, Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, 618th Air Operations Center, etc.—over 13,000 people! All of this creates unique challenges but also great opportunities for Airmen development, cross-service engagements, and insights to how the Guard and Reserve work. All of these opportunities will be increasingly important to Airmen as our service looks to be more proactive to care for Airmen, be more joint, and develop processes and procedures to realize Total Force Integration.