JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
There may only be one name on the award but when asked, Air Education and Training Command's Airfield Operations Officer of the Year will say that it's really about everyone else.
"I just sat behind the desk, these people did all the work," said Capt. Ryan Nichols, formerly the airfield operations flight commander for the 502nd Operations Support Squadron on Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland's Kelly Field Annex.
Nichols now serves as the executive officer for Col. William Eger, 502nd Installation Support Group commander.
Nichols says his award is for Airmen like Senior Airman Joseph Shafner and Staff Sgt. Benjamin Minard who supervise air traffic on the flight lines and all the Airmen studying furiously for their career development courses so that they, too, can sit in the tower.
It's for the NCOs and Senior NCOs like Tech. Sgt. Jacelyn Duvall, Master Sgts. Roland Thomas and Justin Tischler. They supervise the training and support the unit's development and operations.
Away from the tower and down on the flight line, that award is for the airfield management team manning the desks and walking the flight lines. Civilians like Donna Campos, Cathy Long, Ed Peery, Preston Young and Preston Wall bring continuity to the team that cannot be replaced, said Nichols.
It's also for Airmen deployed to the 502nd OSS, like Senior Airman Courtney Hott, that allow the team here to keep up 24/7 operations.
"We support 31,000 operations per year that come in here day-in and day-out and the Airmen are doing all of that. It's amazing to me that we have 18-year-olds that come in here and are controlling traffic, giving planes a safe place to park and meeting all of our criteria. We put a lot of responsibility on them," said Nichols. "The civilians here are amazing, too; we couldn't do any of it without their knowledge and expertise.
"I may get credit (referring to the first line of his awards package) for all of their awards and hard work but they earned those awards on their own. It's not because of anything that I've done."
But this time it is Nichols' name on the award and according to Lt. Col. Corwin Pauly, 502nd OSS commander, it is truly well deserved.
"Knowing what Ryan's flight did (in 2013) and how that represents what he did and how he led and mentored, that's the reason I put him in for it," said Pauly.
Nichols arrived at the 502nd OSS from Travis Air Force Base, Calif. in March 2012 and by his and his commander's account, it's been a busy time here ever since.
Kelly Field is a unique airfield in that there are no active-duty flying missions but other operations require that the airfield maintains support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
For example, the base serves as the military's Midwest medical hub. Wounded warriors coming back from overseas are flown straight in to JBSA-Lackland (or transferred here) anytime to receive care at the San Antonio Military Medical Center.
"A normal [operations] support squadron is perhaps busier than this but the variety of operations here is pretty impressive. We're not a 'Sleepy Hollow.' We could have airplanes coming in anytime," Pauly said.
In fact, the 502nd OSS operates the only 24/7 airfield in AETC.
The 502nd OSS mission partners include the Air Force Reserve 433rd Airlift Wing, the Texas Air National Guard 149th Fighter Wing, 313th Flight Test Squadron, Port San Antonio, Defense Courier Service, U.S. Transportation Command, and the 342nd Training Squadron's parachute operations.
Nichols and the 502nd OSS also support the 80 civilian businesses that make up Port San Antonio, which generated $4.2 billion in commerce last year.
According to his award package, Nichols led a multi-function team for JBSA, creating new airfield procedures that bolstered the partnership between the base and Port San Antonio, which saved the Air Force $1 million.
While supporting all of these missions, Nichols contended with a constrained manning environment and found a solution.
After an 18-month shortage, Nichols fixed the problem by working with AETC to get Airmen deployed to the 502nd OSS, where they received training in airfield management and air traffic control. As a result, the base got the bodies they needed to support 24/7 operations, eliminating the shortage and ensuring consistent support for all missions.
In addition to all his work here in San Antonio, Nichols also led airfield operations overseas during his four-month deployment. He had just returned from overseas when he learned about the award.
Pauly asked Nichols' wife to read the citation aloud off his BlackBerry while at Nichols' welcome home dinner in front of his family and friends.
The win wasn't the only thing that made this homecoming exciting. His wife gave birth to the couple's second child on Jan. 6 while Nichols was still overseas, so his first day back was also the first time he met his youngest son.
"There were too many people around, I couldn't cry. I was almost there but I just came back from deployment, I'm supposed to be warrior," Nichols said with a laugh.
When Nichols looks over his list of accolades and accomplishments, he shakes his head a little because in his mind he's just the guy behind the desk. He's not the one out there on the flight line or up in the tower.
"I look at this stuff (the accomplishments on his awards package) and think 'this isn't me.' You can take anything out of this and attribute it to my team not anything that I've done," Nichols said.
However according to his commander, these accolades display just what kind of leader and Airman Nichols is.
"He's got a very good head on his shoulders as far as his decision-making goes and he's driven, very driven," said Pauly. "He's goal oriented and not afraid to make hard decisions when necessary. He's got a very bright future."
Nichols was the only winner from the functional areas for the 502nd OSS this year and will compete at the Air Force level.