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‘Killer’ mission

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- It's late-night on Jan. 9 and an E-3 Sentry comes into view to dozens of Airmen gathered on the flightline at a non-disclosed base in Southwest Asia. After a 13.4-hour mission over the U.S. Central Command theater of operations performing surveillance of enemy forces, the tires of the airborne warning and control aircraft make contact with the familiar "scuuurrrch" of a landing plane's tires touching the runway.

"That was it," Lt. Col. Gerard "Killer" Kolaski, air battle manager of the combat mission, possibly thought to himself as he waited for the plane to taxi to its parking area on the ramp. He knew that in a short time he'd be back at his home unit at Tinker Air Force Base, getting ready to retire from the Air Force after 28 years of serving, and flying.

In his last combat mission, which brought the total to nearly 70, Colonel Kolaski did whatever he did on the dozens of combat missions he flew in the E-3 for many years. He never gave it a lot of thought because that was his job -- a job to aid U.S. service members on the ground and in the air.

During a mission, Colonel Kolaski's role as air battle manager aboard the surveillance aircraft is to command, although not from the flight deck. His position put him at the center of the aircraft, amongst the consoles where some 18 other operators manage their respective roles in addition to the four who pilot the craft, like an office with cubicles only 30,000 feet up. He runs the ship from his cubicle.

The E-3, according to its Air Force fact sheet, provides situational awareness of friendly, neutral and hostile activity, command and control of an area of responsibility, battle management of theater forces, all-altitude and all-weather surveillance of the battle space, and early warning of enemy actions during joint, allied and coalition operations.

Back to Jan. 9, Colonel Kolaski's plane is being directed by several maintenance personnel directing the crew to park. Nearby, a crowd of approximately 50 Airmen, mostly in tan-colored flight suits, have gathered in anticipation of seeing Colonel Kolaski disembark from the plane.

Within minutes, a few people begin trickling down the metal stairs from the aircraft and eventually, a man with a wide grin painted across his face and his arms stretched out appears atop the steps. He pauses as the throng below claps and cheers.

That was it. The last combat mission of Colonel Kolaski was complete. That said, he knows there is much more he has planned in his life including finishing a doctorate degree in international relations. But that will have to wait because on this night he, or more importantly his comrades from the 960th Expeditionary Airborne Air Control Squadron, celebrated his accomplishments.

Lt. Col. Paul Oldham, who recently turned over command of the 960th EAACS to the 965th EAACS to redeploy, remembers Colonel Kolaski as an encourager. "When I first took command of the Vikings here," he said. "I felt extremely lucky because I knew I could always count on him."

"He's a larger than life person," Colonel Oldham added.

Colonel Kolaski earned his "Killer" nickname because of a black-belt he earned in martial arts. He joined the Air Force in 1982 as a 25-year-old second lieutenant and by 1983 was flying his first missions. Over the span of 28 years he's supported numerous campaigns to include Operation Desert Storm, Operation Allied Force, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

The "gentle AWACS giant," as Colonel Kolaski is also referred to, reflected upon his years in service. He said that although he'll finish his doctorate dissertation for his own benefit, it's also going to help the Air Force improve its relationship with Arabic nations as it focuses on the relationship between the military and Arabic people. That's one of his ways of giving back -- something his squadron mates said has always been his way.

"He's always working and he's always teaching," said Colonel Oldham who met Colonel Kolaski years earlier when he was a captain. "He's never negative or in a bad mood. He gives his experience to those around him, and that way of giving back is extremely significant to the flyers in our community."

Colonel Kolaski's long career has also meant being an instructor, and as a long-time instructor, he said he can't leave the Air Force without leaving some of his teaching pearls of wisdom.

"I have these personal rules as an instructor," Colonel Kolaski said. "One -- you're always a student. Two -- every ride is a check ride. And three -- no question is too stupid."

He added the aircraft he's flown in is a learning laboratory. "By asking questions, people can understand if there is an issue," Colonel Kolaski said. "People like to think they know a lot and are afraid to ask a simple question, but to me, it's the difference between doing it right and a safety incident."

"He loved teaching young people how to fly, loved making a difference in AWACS, loved doing the jobs no one else wanted...", added Lt. Col. Daryl Page, 380th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron commander, who is also a career AWACS aviator and long-time friend of Colonel Kolaski's. "People throw around the word, but the guy's a legend. Anyone who's been in AWACS for more than one tour knows him. He gets the history and heritage piece because he's a part of it."

Colonel Kolaski's educational pursuits have also enabled him to learn to speak five languages, but he claims to be most fluent in Arabic. Through it all, though, the lieutenant colonel said he's also been a "student" of the Air Force.

"I am a student still today," Colonel Kolaski said referring to his pending retirement. "Now, I'm graduating from the Air Force."