Rescue pilot’s visit to Aviano connects the past to the present

  • Published
  • By Airman Synsere Howard
  • 31st Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Maj. Gen. Thomas E. Kunkel, NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force commander, Geilenkirchen Air Base, Germany, visits Aviano Air Base, Italy, Aug. 16-19.

The visit comes 24 years after then Maj. Kunkel, MH-60G Pave Hawk pilot, flew the helicopter that rescued an Aviano Airman who would later go on to lead the U.S. Air Force.

The date was May 2, 1999, when the call came in that an F-16 had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile over Serbia and an Air Force pilot was trapped behind enemy lines. Kunkel and his wingmen carried out the rescue mission that pulled the 555th Fighter Squadron commander out of the clutches of danger.

Fast forward to present day and Kunkel had the opportunity to share his remarkable story and details of that fateful mission with Aviano’s rescue community as the guest speaker at the 56th Rescue Squadron’s combat dining-out.

He spoke about camaraderie, teamwork, perseverance and the significance of being a subject matter expert in your career field. But most importantly, the value of relationships.

“Don’t underestimate the power of relationships, they matter,” said Kunkel. “Relationships between ops and intel, aircrew and maintenance, and everybody else, it all matters. I have never seen it better than what I’ve experienced in rescue.”

During his visit, Kunkel had the chance to connect the past with the present during a flight in an F-16 Fighting Falcon and a tour of the rescue squadron, which operates the HH-60G Pave Hawk. This visit not only rekindled memories but also celebrated the technological advancements that continue to bolster the 56th RQS capabilities

“This is a really big deal to us,” said Lt. Col. Adam Hawkins, 56th RQS commander. “It’s a unique way to connect our fighter and rescue histories with a rescue professional who’s been doing this for 20 plus years.”

Kunkel serves as a reminder of the sacrifices and commitment of upholding the Air Force’s mission to protect and defend. And what happened to that Airman Kunkel saved? He went on to be Gen. David L. Goldfein, the 21st Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force.