Col. Gary Donovan, commander of Tinker Air Force Base’s 552nd Operations Group in Oklahoma, was removed from his post Monday following an investigation that found he skirted safety protocols and fostered an unhealthy workplace culture, a spokesman confirmed Tuesday.
Col. Wayne Frost, the 552nd Air Control Wing’s vice commander, has taken over as ops group boss. Donovan was moved to “do other responsibilities on the installation,” Master Sgt. Andrew Satran, a 15th Air Force spokesman, said Tuesday.
The Air Force declined to discuss other punitive measures that Donovan may face.
“We need the men and women of the 552nd Operations Group to foster a culture of dignity and respect. This means living by core values every day and empowering subordinate leaders to promote these values through teaching, coaching and mentorship,” Maj. Gen. Michael Koscheski, 15th Air Force commander, said in an emailed statement. “We need all airmen to embrace this mindset.”
Koscheski relieved Donovan from command four months after he tried to send E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircrews on a July training exercise they felt was unsafe.
Airmen pushed back, cancelling the sorties, and took to social media to complain about Donovan’s conduct. Multiple safety probes and an investigation into Donovan ensued, while 552nd Air Control Wing leadership maintained it was a matter of miscommunication.
The main inquiry, which was launched by Koscheski over the summer and released its findings at the end of October, substantiated claims that Donovan failed to “promote a culture of safety by failing to adhere to operational risk management standards … and local [risk management] procedures,” according to a summary obtained by Air Force Times.
It also validated that Donovan did not “effectively lead his airmen” and failed to create a “healthy command climate which fosters good order and discipline, teamwork, cohesion and trust.”
Satran declined to provide a copy of the investigation report without a Freedom of Information Act request.
The Air Force whittled down the three safety probes to one, which is still in the works, an Air Force Safety Center spokesman said Tuesday. But earlier paperwork, obtained by Air Force Times through a FOIA request, illustrates similar concerns that have existed for years.
One incident noted through the Airman Safety Action Program — an initiative that lets airmen anonymously self-report safety issues they encounter — argued that 552nd ACW “management believes, on an ingrained and systemic level, that as long as anyone meets the intent of crew rest, they can fly.”
“Members are subtly coerced into flying a local training sortie regardless of experience level and without the proper crew rest considerations,” the Jan. 10, 2018, report said.
Another submission from March 30, 2020, said a training sortie was replanned at the last minute to steer clear of thunderstorms in the area, but the changes weren’t properly relayed to the aircrews. Bad weather moved in sooner than expected, and the airmen scrambled to land amid a lightning warning.
“There were many perceived hazards and inadequate decisions made during the course of this sortie,” the safety investigator who looked into the incident wrote in the March 2020 report. “This perception was created by the chaotic nature of replanning a sortie in a limited amount of time with multiple leaders and confusion on who was the ultimate command authority and decision maker, unexpected weather changes, and poor [management] practices with a large crew.”
The investigator added that airmen were frustrated that their debriefing that day didn’t discuss any of the problems that arose in planning and flying the sortie.
“A lot of focus on flight safety and leadership has gone by the wayside,” said one air battle manager who spoke to Air Force Times on condition of anonymity earlier this year.
“In my mind, there’s no way for the 552 to be successful without removing the OG from command.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.