Lt. Col. Jeffrey Burdette assumed his new role as Arnold Engineering Development Complex (AEDC), Test System Sustainment Division Chief at Arnold Air Force Base on Aug. 9. But even as he’s getting acquainted with his surroundings, he has a positive outlook and only nice things to say about Arnold.
“There’s no reason not to love it,” Burdette said. “Some of the unique capabilities here are really exciting to be around and to be a part of. I love the people, love the mission and love the area. So yeah, what’s not to love? It definitely beats northern Virginia traffic.”
Burdette comes to AEDC as the previous Deputy Chief of the Maintenance Division for the Directorate of Logistics at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. There he was responsible for developing weapons system readiness requirements, providing maintenance policy guidance and disposition for over 5,400 aircraft across the Total Force.
“All of my work there over the previous five years helped me get an understanding of how the enterprise itself functions, how all of these singular bases, differing missions and different MAJCOMs (major commands) come together to support the national defense strategy,” Burdette said. “It really gave me a good enterprise view of how this all fits together, how every airman out on the flight line and how every civilian working out in the test center supports the mission – how everything we do is all towards that same goal, whether you’re civilian, military, contractor or whatever it is you’re doing. It all supports the bigger picture.”
Burdette’s Air Force career has been an interesting journey, especially in the beginning when he was figuring out exactly what it was he wanted to do.
“I enlisted in the Air Force straight out of high school and began my career as an aircraft maintainer, loading munitions on F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-15 Eagles and other fighter aircraft,” he said. “I did that for four years on active duty, got out and joined the Air National Guard.
“I immediately knew that leaving active duty probably wasn’t the right decision. In the Air Force, there’s just a sense of community, welcoming and partnership, and everyone working together to achieve the mission.”
Burdette determined he wanted to return to Air Force active duty when attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in professional aeronautics. While there, he also joined the ROTC and was commissioned through that program.
“I was going to school and I saw the ROTC cadets walking around in their uniforms,” he said. “I was still a member of the Air National Guard, I thought, ‘What better way to utilize my education than to continue serving on active duty.’
“I was looking at jobs I wanted to do in the commercial world, but I just knew there wouldn’t be the right fit out there. So, I went and saw the ROTC recruiter and signed up - one of the best decisions that I made regarding my career going forward.”
He also thanks his grandfather for sparking his interest in aeronautics.
“My grandfather was in the Army Air Corps in World War II as a radio mechanic on B-24s (Liberator) stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base (Alabama) during the war,” Burdette said. “He lived in Dayton, Ohio, not far from the Air Force Museum, so he loved taking us to visit the Air Force Museum and showing us all about aviation and what he did. It was pretty cool. It was probably one of things that inspired me to join the Air Force.”
Now as chief of TSS at Arnold, Burdette is leading, directing and overseeing the maintenance and reliability activities for $11.5 billion in assets that provide unique national-level ground and flight testing capabilities for the Department of Defense. His division is responsible for the operation and sustainment of AEDC research, development, test and evaluation, aerospace test and test support systems, and delivering mission-ready systems through asset management and capital improvement.
“What TSS does is enable the test community to be able to execute their mission,” he said. “The infrastructure, machinery and test equipment that we are running, much of it dates back to the 1950s. Not that old is bad but old is old, and it requires a lot of work to keep it up and running. That’s our main objective, to enable the test communities to perform their mission; to keep the test assets up and running to support the customer for both today and improving capabilities for the future; ensuring that the test assets that they need for tomorrow will be available when they need them.”
In order to achieve this, Burdette said it’s his obligation to empower his team to make the right decisions and make sure they have what they need to execute the mission.
“We have on one side of the building state-of-the-art digital equipment and on the other side, vacuum tubes and gauges,” he said. “So how do you bridge the gap? You have to find the right technician and right engineers who understand both the digital and the vacuum tubes. It’s a unique skillset that can do both of those. They’re unique skillsets on their own, you combine them and it’s a rarity.
“But also, as unique as we are, where can we build upon commercial best practices in similar industries? Where can we look at successful corporations and build upon the lessons that they’ve already learned? What metrics can we use?”
Burdette explained that all successful industries have ways of gauging their success, but admitted it will be a challenge to determine what those metrics are for AEDC.
“How do we measure what we do? I think that’s kind of hard and it’s unique to the capabilities that we have. We can’t look to an Amazon or Google and pull what they’re doing. I can apply some of it, but what other industrial corporations are out there running wind tunnels or some of the other facilities that we have? There’s not much to compare it to.”
However, Burdette will be taking strides to get answers to some of these questions because he knows how important the product of AEDC is to national defense.
“In TSS, we support the Test Operations Division and their test customers to make sure they have the assets available when they need them and that the assets have the capability to achieve the test parameters the customers are looking for.
“But in the bigger picture for the Air Force, we are ensuring that we are not only able to maintain the capabilities of today, but that we’re keeping this installation relevant to ensure that we build the capabilities that we need for tomorrow,” he said. “As the Air Force looks towards space, hypersonics and beyond, we have to ensure that we have the capabilities to help influence that research and development.”
Most importantly, Burdette also wants his team members to know that he’s willing and ready to help them in any way he can.
“For the people of TSS, my main job is to support them,” he said. “I’m a huge follower of servant leadership. I truly believe that my job as a leader of this organization, or any organization, is to serve the folks within that organization. I work for them, they don’t work for me. It is my role to clear obstacles out of their way, to empower them to make decisions. I’m not going to tell them how to do their job. They’ll tell me what their problems are and let me fix those. My goal is to serve the folks of TSS, to make sure they have the tools, the equipment, the training that they need to perform their duties.”