Flying, Teaching, and Leading in the 134th
Lee Hartley gets up every day knowing exactly what he needs to do. “We’re here to fly airplanes,” says the tall, lanky Doyle High School graduate.
In 2018, Col. M. Lee Hartley Jr. became the base commander for the Tennessee Air National Guard’s 134th Air Refueling Wing in August after two years as vice commander and 19 years in pilot and command positions.
Flying is still Hartley’s passion, even after 6,800 flying hours, both military and commercial, and hundreds of missions, including 60 combat missions in support of operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, Freedom Sentinel, and Inherent Resolve.
He discovered flying at the age of six when his father took him to an air show in Dallas. Decades later, he’s still infatuated.
What was it that impressed him? “Lots of really fast airplanes with a lot of noise,” he says.
As he moved through elementary and middle school, he always came back to the same thought: “I sure would like to be in the military and fly a plane.” To satisfy his longing to be in the air, his dad arranged a few flights in small planes for him.
He played basketball at Doyle High School, was in the National Honor Society, and went to Boys’ State in 1986. “I applied for the Air Force Academy, a rigorous process that requires academic excellence.” He graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering mechanics and served on active duty as an instructor pilot until 1997.
“One of my fondest memories was getting my first solo — you fly by yourself. You’ve gone through all your instruction and demonstrate that you know how to take off, land, and do basic air work. You’re nervous. In the back of your mind you’re thinking ‘Did I do it perfectly?’ I remember getting thrown in the solo tank in early ‘92. It looks like a big livestock feeding tank. Even in southern Texas [at the Randoph Air Force Base] it gets a little chilly. I had a year of pilot training and then went back to Randolph to teach the instructor course.
“There are a lot of things I like about flying,” Hartley says, adding that he flies about once a week as an instructor. “Nothing is ever static. You’re moving around in the air at five to six miles a minute. The requirement for you to know where you are — the situational awareness — is constantly changing. The crunch points … that challenge, that appeal … is probably one of the things I enjoy the most.”
He says life is busy on the 363-acre base in Alcoa where 10 KC135R Boeing Stratotankers are located.
“We have roughly 1,100 people here on the base who are tremendous volunteers and great patriots. No kidding, we’re busy. About two years ago, if I remember, in the 134th either you or the person next to you were deployed at any given time. Our members live and breathe and work and go to church and school right here. We contribute $3.31 million a week to the economy here.”
Students, including international active duty, guard and reserve, are trained in Air Force professional military education classes, live in the dorms, eat in the dining facility, go to church on the campus and learn to be leaders in the United States Air Force.
“Within the community I don’t know that there’s a great awareness of what we do out here,” he says. “I’d like for people to know. When the public sees the news on TV, they may not know that we have people here who are involved in the news all the time, all over the globe.
“The base has been here since ’52 and the Guard took the keys from Active Duty in ’57. We’ve been in the air refueling business since 1964. I will say our operational tempo is high. Our airplanes converted their engines in 2008 and since then it’s been guns blazing. We’ve been busy for the last 10 years. It’s ebbed and flowed a little bit, but the overall participation for most of our members isn’t one weekend a month or two weeks a year. It’s a lot more than that. Last year we put somebody pretty much in every continent. With people gone on a continual basis, it makes it hard to do the training.
“We have two missions here on the base: one federal and one state. We have people all over the world right now doing their mission for the Air Force. We’re also here to respond to the Governor and the state of Tennessee as he needs. Our planes are for refueling. Our support functions such as medical, security, logistics, civil engineering, force support squadron, and communications are where we are able to support disaster relief.
“Our planes are for air refueling. We can greatly extend time over the battle space. The idea is you have a flying gas station so you don’t have to stop. It’s a coordinated dance. The boom operator who lies in the back and flies the boom, controls the aerial refueling piece of it. The tanker pilot’s job is to make sure the two airplanes go where they need to go. The receiver aircraft pilot’s job is to follow the instructions of the boom operator lying in the back to get the airplanes that last 50 feet and to make sure the airplanes are in close enough proximity and are stable together that we can make the connection and offload the fuel. Pretty awesome in a lot of ways. I think our boom operators have the best enlisted flying job in the Air Force.”
“Since 2008, the wing has had a fairly continual presence in the Middle East. One of the big highlights I had here was an aero-med mission. One of the things that I remember being very rewarding is that one of the patients had been the victim of three IEDs. He was in critical condition. We were able to get him out of Afghanistan and back into Europe.”
He says one of his main responsibilities is to encourage young airmen to become the leaders of tomorrow. Hartley said leadership was engrained from the moment he stepped off the bus at the Air Force Academy.
“To be a good leader, you have to be a good follower. Until you’ve been there, it’s hard to effectively lead somebody. It’s that ‘Don’t draw a line in the sand that you’re not willing to step up to.’”
“Being a leader is more about a journey than an ‘Aha’ moment. If you’re able to take a step back and be reflective, you’ll see being a leader is more about how you’re serving the greater good.
“Being in East Tennessee, we receive outstanding support in the local community, many of them know what I do and will come and ask me about the military. Obviously, I’m partial to the Air Force and the Air National Guard. I think what I would offer to any young person is there’s a purpose to their lives that’s bigger than themselves. That’s right where they’re going to find meaning, when the focus is not on themselves. Serving something bigger than yourself is about as worthy a cause that I can think of and to do it in a way that gives back.
“The ideas of our Founding Fathers, our Constitutional values — that’s what we all raise our right hand to swear to, to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies both foreign and domestic. That’s what we all aspire to serve. It doesn’t matter what happens politically. I support and defend the Constitution and there’s a certain satisfaction knowing you’re serving your fellow human being.
Hartley met his wife, Kristin, while he was stationed in Texas. The couple has two daughters. Haley, 18, is now at the Air Force Academy. Emily, 16, is a student at Heritage High School.
“To ignore that my faith is the driver in all of it would be to shortchange everything. For me, that drives everything. Your faith is something that you always hang on to; it’s fundamental to the things I do. My purpose for Lee Hartley the person, not the uniform-wearing Lee Hartley, is to be true to my Christian faith.
“To be in this role as the Commander of the 134th Air Refueling Wing means a lot,” he says. “I don’t know that anybody could have a better dream job. I believe in what we do. I believe in our mission here. I like that we serve the state of Tennessee as well as the United States. I think we live in the best place in the world.”