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General: Minot wing improved, but not enough

Nov. 23, 2009 - 07:28AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 23, 2009 - 07:28AM  |  
Col. Joel S. Westa, commander of the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., was fired Oct. 30 for loss of confidence in his ability to lead.
Col. Joel S. Westa, commander of the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., was fired Oct. 30 for loss of confidence in his ability to lead. (AIR FORCE)
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Col. Douglas Cox, a B-52 navigator, took over for Col. Joel Westa as commander of the 5th Bomb Wing based at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. (AIR FORCE)

Col. Joel Westa had been hand-picked to lead the 5th Bomb Wing out of the wilderness.

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Col. Joel Westa had been hand-picked to lead the 5th Bomb Wing out of the wilderness.

He was the one who was supposed to restore the good name of Minot Air Force Base, N.D., where the most embarrassing and alarming screw-up in modern Air Force history took place.

In the end, though, Westa wound up getting fired just as his predecessor had been.

Westa arrived at Minot two years ago, assigned to replace Col. Bruce Emig, who was fired after a B-52 bomber crew had flown a nuclear-tipped cruise missile from Minot to Barksdale Air Force Base, La.

Those at the very top of the Air Force thought Westa, a master navigator and former commander of the B-52 Weapons School squadron, was just the man to bring the 5th Bomb Wing back around.

But Westa struggled; his B-52 wing failed two nuclear surety inspections, one in May 2008 and in late September.

"We expected him to come in and fix the problems that were there," Maj. Gen. Floyd Carpenter told Air Force Times four days after he flew to Minot to dismiss Westa.

"In those two years, he had some moments that were very good. ... Unfortunately, they were never consistent enough to get prepared for that inspection at the right time and place and get that mission focused as we needed it to be," Carpenter said in a telephone interview. "I just had to make a change."

On Sept. 26, two days after learning about the second failed inspection, Carpenter flew to see Westa.

"He knew there was concern over his and the wing's performance. ... He was certainly concerned that I showed up unannounced on a Saturday," Carpenter recalled.

Carpenter decided to let Westa go in early October and discussed his decision several times with his boss, Air Combat Command commander Gen. William Fraser, who agreed with his recommendation and informed Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz.

Westa's dismissal took place Oct. 30, only two weeks after the firing of Col. Christopher Ayres of the 91st Missile Wing, also at Minot. Ayres was fired by Maj. Gen. Roger Burg, commander of 20th Air Force in Air Force Space Command.

Westa declined three interview requests by Air Force Times.

Carpenter considered using a routine change of command to replace Westa, who after two years at Minot was at the point where wing commanders often move to a new assignment, but decided against it.

"He did not warrant a normal change of command process," Carpenter said. "I didn't want to let airmen believe that performance like that was normal, accepted and standard."

Though Westa didn't do all that was expected of him, Carpenter credits the colonel for improving the 5th Bomb Wing.

"He has done good things and is a good officer," Carpenter said. "We are better able to do this mission today than we were two years ago or even five years ago or 10 years ago. We have made great strides at Minot and across the nuclear enterprise."

Both the fired commanders at Minot received offers of other jobs. Ayres is going to Space Command headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., and Westa is expected to accept a post at Global Strike Command headquarters at Barksdale.

Replacing Westa is Col. Douglas Cox, a B-52 navigator, who had been serving as vice commander of the 36th Wing at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, the same post Westa held before going to Minot.

Cox's first full day on the job was three days after Westa's firing.

"I can't imagine anyone taking a command job without some apprehension," Cox said in a telephone interview Nov. 6. "I also don't know how you would not feel honored and obligated to accept a command if it was offered to you."

The assignment arrived with no advance notice. Cox took off for North Dakota; his wife and a son packed up the family's home in Guam.

Cox, a master navigator, emphasized the wing's problems are not with the motivation or professionalism of the airmen.

"The more I see of the hard-working folks here ... the more confident I feel that the unit is going to do fine," he said.

The 5th does face challenges with the experience level of airmen who work on the wing's B-52s, Cox said. The addition of the new squadron brought more airmen, but many are recent recruits fresh from technical school, or veteran noncommissioned officers with limited B-52 backgrounds.

"It is going to take time to get everyone up to speed," said Cox, who has logged 3,300 hours in B-52s since 1989.

The wing also must meet ongoing deployment requirements while keeping its nuclear readiness.

"It's a competition of priorities ...," he said. "We're going to face it the best way we can and do our best to make those tough priority decisions with the help of our chain of command."

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