State’s new top general back in Alaska for the third time

Lieutenant General Kenneth Wilsbach walking out on the runway at Joint-Base Elmendorf-Richardson to fly a training mission. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
Lieutenant General Kenneth Wilsbach walking out on the runway at Joint-Base Elmendorf-Richardson to fly a training mission. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Alaska has a new top military commander. Lieutenant General Kenneth Wilsbach started this August, taking over as head of the 11th Air Force, Alaskan NORAD region and Alaskan Command from Lieutenant General Russell Handy.

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But this is hardly Wilsbach’s first time serving in the Last Frontier.

On a recent Wednesday inside a non-descript building nestled between airplane hangars at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, eight fighter pilots in green jumpsuits huddled around a desk. A few ate handfuls of Jalapeno popcorn as they listen to a pre-flight briefing.

The pilots were getting ready to fly F-22 fighter planes for a training mission. Among them was Wilsbach, Alaska’s highest ranking officer, with duties sprawling all the way from JBER to installations in the Pacific.

Lieutenant General Kenneth Wilsbach prepares to depart in an F-22 for a training mission. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
Lieutenant General Kenneth Wilsbach prepares to depart in an F-22 for a training mission. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Wilsbach rose through the Air Force flying and commanding fighter squadrons. As he walked out to a jet-hangar buffeted by winds and temperatures in the teens, Wilsbach looked as calm as he was focused. Amid the din of roaring jet engines, he compared getting ready for flight to preparing for a sports game.

During an interview, Wilsbach lit up describing his life-long love of flying: “I never met a plane I didn’t like.”

In spite of his high rank Wilsbach still flies, which he believes informs his ability to command other pilots.

“I did this even when I was in Afghanistan, and I can’t tell you how valuable that was, for me to be out in the airspace conducting operations when my fellow generals were back in the headquarters,” Wilsbach said.

Inside his office, the general showed off commendations and gifts from his deployments around the globe, like a battle-ax from the United Arab Emirates, a framed sketch of the Soviet-built air-tower at Bagram Air Base and a painted flight helmet from Okinawa, Japan.

“You can see it’s got my call sign, which is ‘Cruiser,'” Wilsbach said.

Wilsbach was reluctant to divulge details on his call sign.

“I can’t tell you that story,” Wilsbach said with a laugh.

Lieutenant General Kenneth Wilsbach in his office, surrounded by momentos and awards, including a University of Florida Gators coffee-maker. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
Lieutenant General Kenneth Wilsbach in his office, surrounded by momentos and awards, including a University of Florida Gators coffee-maker. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

On one side of the office was a coffeemaker emblazoned with a Gators logo for the University of Florida, where Wilsbach and his wife both went, and where he received his ROTC commission. The couple remain self-described “rabid fans” of the school’s sports.

In another corner of the room sit several bulky grey telephones used for classified calls around the globe.

“We try not to go through secretaries and middle people,” Wilsbach explained, pointing out a phone the size of a Thesaurus with speed-dial buttons to different high-ranking officers. “These are commanders talking to commanders on a classified phone.”

“This is just a regular phone, but you put a card in it, it scrambles and encrypts the signal, so I can talk secret on that one, as well,” Wilsbach added.

Wilsbach was stationed in Alaska from 1998 to 2002, and was in charge of an air squadron when 9/11 happened, which led to his first combat command.

But Wilsbach actually lived in Alaska once before: his dad was stationed on Adak in 1969, where he would camp and play among remnants of the Pacific Campaign.

“It was certainly remote for my folks, but for a little kid it was great,” Wilsbach recalled.

Since his earlier postings in Alaska, the Air Force here and abroad has gone through substantial changes. Back then, the force was built to wage World War III and has since shrunk to the smallest it has ever been, primarily by shedding fighter squadrons. Instead, the current emphasis is on “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance,” staples of counter-terrorism operations.

Alaska in some ways bucks that trend, however.

“We have about the same amount (of personnel) that we had here in the 90s in Alaska, it’s been modernized, though,” Wilsbach said.

During his command, Wilsbach will oversee the installation of the newest generation of jet fighters to Alaska’s fleet. By 2022 there’ll be 54 F-35s here, doubling the size of Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks with 2,500 additional personnel and bringing up to $300 million in new construction, according to figures from Wilsbach.

Integrating those new tools smoothly into the military’s Northern and Pacific forces is one of the jet pilot’s main tasks in the years ahead.

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Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska. @ZachHughesAK About Zachariah