JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas –
As social distancing and shelter-in-place efforts intensified in April as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, two 12th Flying Training Wing units at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph kept in step with public health directives by conducting the wing’s first virtual ceremonies.
On April 3, Lt. Col. Corey Hogue assumed command of the 558th Flying Training Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph from Lt. Col. Eric Bissonette during a virtual change of command.
Two weeks later, on April 17, combat systems officer students earned their wings during the 479th Flying Training Group’s initial virtual graduation at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida.
Both events are serving as templates for the wing’s future ceremonies during the pandemic.
“The 559th Flying Training Squadron is our next change of command, tentatively scheduled for June 12,” said Ben Faske, 12th FTW public affairs chief. “They are currently looking at using a similar model to the 558th’s change of command if the current restrictions on social distancing are still in place.”
The 558th FTS’ change of command was conducted by video recording ahead of time, Faske said.
“Both incoming and outgoing commanders recorded messages that were edited into the video, which allowed for appropriate social distancing,” he said. “It is important to note that the mask guidance requiring mask use within 6 feet had not yet been handed down; otherwise the video could have been recorded live if everyone used face masks.”
Social distancing guidelines, including mask wear when 6 feet of distancing cannot be established, will continue to be followed for all changes of command and graduations, Faske said.
Although the 558th FTS change of command was not a live event and family and friends were not invited to watch live, the video was recorded and released in a closed group on YouTube, he said.
The 479th FTG’s CSO virtual graduation, which included comments by the group’s commander, Col. Charles McElvaine, was also recorded and can be seen on the group’s Facebook page.
That graduation could also set a standard for 12th FTW units during social distancing, Faske said.
“The 558th FTS will be conducting their Basic Sensor Operator Course and Undergraduate Remotely Piloted Aircraft Training Course graduations using some of the best practices from the 479th,” he said.
One of those best practices was having a cyclic flow of graduates into the conference room maintaining spacing and exiting through the west doors, said Capt. Clarence Abercrombie Jr., 479th FTG CSO instructor and public affairs representative.
Setting up tablets in the hallways to show the live stream was another best practice, Abercrombie said.
“This allowed students to hear and see Col. McElvaine’s opening comments and also aided in showing them how the ceremony was supposed to flow while they waited,” he said.
Other best practices were giving students time to address their families after receiving their aeronautical orders, and presenting distinguished graduate and other awards at the same time as aeronautical orders and having the proffer place items on the table in front of the graduates, which supported distancing guidelines and allowed a smooth flow for the ceremony.
By addressing their families, students felt connected to them, Abercrombie said.
“The live stream also allowed family members to instantly respond back, which let them feel connected as well,” he said.
To ensure the ceremony proceeded smoothly, the 479th FTG set up the conference room two days prior to the event to test equipment and allow time to work contingencies, Abercrombie said.
In his post on the 479th FTG’s Facebook page, Abercrombie said the ceremony provided graduates with a meaningful experience while meeting social distancing standards.
“It was necessary to consider limiting contact, 6-foot spacing and overall safety,” he said. “However, it was equally necessary to ensure that the celebration of this moment accurately reflected its impact on our Air Force and our newest CSOs. We are glad that we were able to achieve that goal, but more importantly that we could share this occasion with all of those family members who couldn't physically join us today.”