KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
In the packed, standing room only 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron auditorium, Lt. Col. Dwayne A. Russell retired with 31 years of service to his country, May 14.
Russell, a former 53rd WRS commander, a pilot, and a mentor to many 53rd members, was recognized for his hard work and dedication when he was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal by Col. Jeffrey A. Van Dootingh, 910th Airlift Wing commander, who presided over the retirement ceremony.
“Why are we here?” asked Van Dootingh. “Yes for a retirement, but when I think of a retirement, I ask three simple questions: What did the retiree do? How did he or she do it? and most importantly why? And when I asked myself those questions (about Russell), it was pretty simple: pilot, professional and people.”
Russell was a pilot, who started on his own and after two years flying routes between Mobile and Birmingham, Alabama, decided that was enough. In 1991, he joined the Air Force Reserve and began his career flying combat missions.
Russell talked about how on his first scheduled flight after completing training, he thought that as a co-pilot he was actually going to get to fly the C-130 Hercules aircraft.
“Nope,” he said. “My aircraft commander put me in the back to work with the loadmasters, and I was taught how to use the equipment, including the engineer’s panel, everything in the back on the first two or three flights.”
Russell explained that while the aircraft commander calls for the checklists, the co-pilot’s job is to operate the radios and go through those checklists, so you need to be aware of what is going on and what everyone’s job is.
“Learning those jobs was one of the best things that I ever had to do,” he said. “Because after that, I knew what they were doing in the back, and that’s where I got an appreciation for the enlisted.”
That appreciation served him well over the years and according to Senior Master Sgt. Joseph Latham, 53rd WRS loadmaster supervisor, it even earned him the highest compliment from the 53rd WRS loadmaster section of “We will fly with you anywhere,” said Latham.
Russell flew many different types of missions, starting when he was selected for the co-pilot slot in a tactics course to being deployed in support of multiple humanitarian relief missions and joint force military missions overseas.
In 1996, Russell once again decided to make a change.
“As if flying short hops in Alabama and in combat wasn’t dangerous enough, he decided to change it up and transferred to the 53rd WRS to fly into hurricanes, because that has to be safe. Right,” joked Van Dootingh during the retirement ceremony. “So he ended up over here and has been here ever since.”
Russell started his 26-year run as a hurricane hunter as an Air Reserve Technician, moving up from an aircraft commander to instructor pilot, working in scheduling and then in the standardization and evaluations section for a few years before he went back to being a traditional reservist.
“He was always looked up to in the pilot section and everyone went to Dwayne when something was going on because you knew you could get the right answer from him,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Pituch, 53rd WRS commander. “You weren’t going to get the computer fixed but if it was flight related, he knew.”
Russell said that he only had two real memorable flights, at least from in the air.
“One storm I remember, though not the name, was as we were leaving the storm about to finish and come home from a night flight, we entered a small cell at the turn point,” he said. “When we hit that thing, for about five seconds it seemed like the plane was out of control, and the whole front of the plane inside started to glow purple and you couldn’t hear the engines because of how loud the rain was. And then it was back to normal.”
On other storm missions he flew, he remembered assisting the Coast Guard as a communications relay to ships that were in hazard areas and also doing research missions in Guam in 2010.
“And the other storm I remember was also the strongest storm I ever flew,” he said. “It was out of Guam, Typhoon Megi, we hit wind speeds at about 165 knots. I never topped winds that high.”
As a traditional reservist, Russell said that some years he didn’t get to fly many storm missions, because it was hit or miss on timing of his annual tour, but in 2017 he took time off of his civilian job and worked the peak of the season flying storms like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Katia, Maria, and others.
When Van Dootingh took command of the 403rd Wing in 2019, he asked Russell to take the position of 53rd WRS commander, because he described Russell as a consummate professional, by-the-book kind of guy, who took care of his Airmen, took care of the mission, and enforced the standards.
Pituch commented that Russell had a command presence even before he was the commander.
“I have some big shoes to fill following Dwayne (as a commander), and at 6’5” I’ve got big feet,” said PItuch. “Following behind him, I hope I don’t make him look bad, because he trusted me to do this and put his name next to mine.”
“Dwayne is what the Air Force mold needs to be, because he doesn’t fit the standard mold,” said Pituch. “To say his leadership, his ability to draw the line and enforce the standards fits the core values is cliché’, but it fits, and he leads from the heart.”
That ability to lead with professionalism and from the heart is why Russell wanted to retire in his squadron, with everyone crammed into the auditorium.
After his retirement order was published, speeches and thanks given, Russell closed out the ceremony with “Ok, one last time, does anyone have anything for me?” Waving his hands in the classic bring it to me gesture.
And from the front row, his wife, Carrie asked, “What’s the retirement return policy?” The room erupted in laughter.