Flying By The Seat Of His Pants
Jun 01, 2018 09:33AM
● By Maleesa Johnson
Flying fighter jets was all he ever wanted to do in life. And that’s exactly what Col. Gavin Tade did for 14 years. But what do you do when your life’s passion is simply not feasible anymore? Tade’s time as a fighter pilot was ended due to back trouble, leaving him with that question.
“I had a really good mentor named Keith Knudson,” Tade says. “He told me, 'Gavin, you're a born leader. Instead of walking around feeling sorry for yourself because you can't fly anymore, you need to go lead airmen.'”
This advice (and a lot of work) led Tade to become a group commander of the 944th Mission Support Group. He currently oversees two detached groups at Davis–Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. When he isn’t working for the military, he is flying the Boeing 777 for American Airlines out of DFW Airport.
Tade has a calculated 1900 people under his umbrella of leadership. His main squad, however, is here in Southlake and consists of his wife, Angie, and their four kids: Camryn (13), Trevor (11), Dalton (10) and Messina (7).
“Camryn is very much a free spirit, Trevor is pretty intense and locked into what he is doing,” Tade says. “Dalton is really into airplanes, Angie calls him little Gavin. He's somewhere in between the older two. Messina is our wild child. She's just a mixture of all of them.”
And, as most Carroll students are, the Tade children are actively involved in extracurriculars. With kids on three different campuses – Old Union, Eubanks and Dawson – the whole family stays busy. So busy, in fact, that their after-school commute has been dubbed “The Tade 500.”
“The events don't stop until about 8 p.m.,” the father of four explains. “Then you get them home, get them fed, talk about how their day went and get them to bed. Then the next day is lather, rinse, repeat. It's just around the clock.”
That is enough to exhaust anyone. Tack on frequent flights across the globe, jetlag and commanding the 944th, and it’s hard to imagine how Tade stays on his feet. And you can add “football coach” to his many existing titles.
"That's how I spend time with my sons,” he says. “I've done that since they were little boys.”
When given the chance, Tade gladly gives teachers a break by speaking to their classes. Both of his parents taught for a combined 64 years, so he has a soft spot for educators. When he talks to students, he dresses in a flight suit with a Dragon T-shirt concealed underneath.
“I tell them that it is my duty to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and then I unzip my flight suit, revealing the T-shirt, and I say, ‘Your duty is to protect the tradition,’” Tade says. “They just cheer and go nuts.”
A Second Family
When Tade talks about the airmen under his command, it’s not uncommon to hear him talk like they are his own children. When you do the math, his youngest airmen are only five years older than his oldest daughter.
“At 46, I'm one of the old guys now,” he chuckles. “I really take my responsibilities as a commander seriously and taking care of my airmen is the most important part of my job.”
The mission support group, the 944th, is made up of four squadrons that each serve unique purposes to keep the bases running. In Tade’s words, the Logistics Squadron is like the FedEx of the Air Force, while the Security Forces are similar to a police force. The Civil Engineers build the infrastructure of the base and the Force Support Squadron takes care of all of the paperwork. Bases function like small towns, and Tade has two under his command.
“My job is to organize, train and equip combat-ready airmen,” he says. “That's what we as commanders do, but 100 percent of the credit goes to the airmen. All we do is provide the vision and direction and desire. The airmen do the heavy lifting.”
“Combat-ready” isn’t just a fancy qualifier for the 944th. The group recently finished the largest combat deployment of airmen throughout the world in the unit’s history. When the airmen get back, there is a huge welcome party on base. They open up the hangars, grill and invite families of the returning men and women. Even just talking about the raw emotion of the reunion gives Tade chills.
“We have several hundred deployed and what's so special about these airmen is they write a blank check to the United States government for up to and including the amount of their life,” he says. “It's a pretty serious deal. They are willing to give their lives to protect and defend the constitution of the United States.”
Soaring Above Setbacks
While he endlessly praises his airmen, what Tade won’t immediately tell you is the incredible amount of grit and tenacity it took him to get where he is today.
While he and Angie are raising four Texan children, they themselves are Iowa transplants. But from looking at childhood pictures of Tade, you would think the Dallas Cowboy jersey-clad kid was raised right here in the Metroplex.
"I've been a Cowboys fan since I was born,” he laughs. “In my town, you were either a Cowboys fan or a Steelers fan."
So, sure enough, the Bloomfield, Iowa native is a huge Troy Aikman fan. He even cites the famed quarterback whenever he gives pep talks about preparedness. His childhood fantasy was to play for the Cowboys, but he figured the Air Force was a more realistic goal. Plus, he was given a little extra inspiration from a 1986 blockbuster.
“I watched Top Gun and that was it,” he says. “I came out of the theater and that's all I wanted to do."
As is the case for any dream worth chasing, this aspiration wasn’t going to be fulfilled overnight. In 1992, Tade earned an associate of science degree in aviation pilot training from Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa. Two years later, he completed his bachelor of science degree in aviation technology from the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Missouri. It was there that he served as a flight instructor at only 19 years old.
Armed with flight experience and two degrees, Tade applied to work for a regional airline in 1994. He admits that the planes he would have flown there were far from the F-16s he had dreamed of. Even so, he was turned down for the job.
“I got turned down to fly puddle jumpers,” he says. “And then the next week I went back up to the Iowa Air National Guard and I interviewed with the F-16 unit. And I was humbled. I had just been turned down the week before.”
But he got hired. The F-16 unit took him on and started a chapter of his life that would continue for 14 years. During that time, Tade flew with the 124th Fighter Squadron, Iowa Air National Guard Base in Des Moines, Iowa. Six years into his assignment there, he met his wife.
"I was home on a two-day break,” Tade says. “My brother said 'change your clothes, we're going out.' We went to this outdoor festival and that's where I met my wife."
Fast forward two years to 2002, and the happy couple started their lives as newlyweds. She worked – and still works – as a certified public accountant. Due to the multitude of CPA job opportunities in the metroplex and the fact that Tade was already flying out of DFW for American Airlines, the couple moved to the Dallas area and have been here ever since.
However, the happy story took a turn in 2009, when Tade started experiencing substantial lower back problems.
“When you're pulling nine g's that's nine times the gravity of Earth,” he explains. “So if I weighed 200 pounds, that's 1800 pounds of pressure every time. And I flew for 1500 hours in the F-16. That's a lot of g's.”
Despite back surgeries, his time as a fighter pilot came to a close. Tade describes the time from 2009 to 2012 as a “lost era.” His No. 1 aspiration in life was to fly fighter jets, but it was now being ripped away from him.
“In 2009 when that dream ended, I was really lost,” Tade says. “I was questioning myself.”
Enter his mentor, Col. Keith Knudson. A squadron commander himself, Knudson knew this level of leadership would be perfect for Tade. That is how Tade got connected with the 73rd Aerial Port Squadron. The squadron wasn’t in the best shape when Tade arrived, but he was able to quickly turn things around. As always, he credits this to his airmen.
“We got this thing turned around and became the military unit of the year twice,” Tade says. “It was the airmen. All I did was provide the motivation and desire."
Now, as a colonel and group commander, Tade has entered the less than one percent of the Air Force. The way he talks about his airmen, you would think being group commander was his plan all along.
“I joined the Air Force to fly fighters,” he says. “I stay in the Air Force because I love the airmen. It's just taking care of people, leading people, working through issues, watching them have success and watching them defend our Nation."