He grew up living under the flight path of jets heading to the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl for a high-speed flyby. As a teenager, he spent time fishing in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains watching fighter jets screaming overhead at more than 500 miles per hour, just 100 feet off the ground.
Now he’s in charge of the largest fighter group in the Air Force and 138 of the jets he used to watch.
Col. John Hanna, 56th Operations Group commander, took charge in June of an OG that’s almost twice the size of previous groups he’s been assigned to.
“Most F-16 groups have two or three flying squadrons and an operational support squadron, but here we have six flying squadrons, an OSS, training squadron and a detachment down at Tucson,” Hanna said. “I knew it was going to be a big job, and when I found out I was coming here as a group commander I thought I could be in over my head. When I sat down and spoke with Brigadier General (JD) Harris, (former 56th Fighter Wing commander), he explained why he picked me, and it put me at ease.”
Hanna said finding out he’d command operations at the Air Force’s largest fighter wing came in December, and it was like getting an early Christmas present.
It’s a present the South Pasadena, Calif., native never dreamed about when he joined the Air Force. He remembers being on vacation in Colorado and getting the call that he’d been accepted into Officer Training School July 4, 1988.
“Early on, I didn’t know there was anything other than the Air Force Academy, but then I met a guy who was in ROTC who said he got a pilot slot, so I spoke with the instructors about joining,” Hanna said. “Because I had only two years of school left at San Diego State, I didn’t qualify. An Air Force Officer Training School recruiter happened to be dropping off pamphlets and heard me speaking with the instructors. He knew my pitch wouldn’t work, but he waited 20 minutes for me to get done. As I exited the ROTC office he said, ‘Hey, come here fella, I think I’ve got what you want.’”
Hanna’s more than 23-year career has taken him to full-time assignments in eight U.S. states while his deployments include stops in 11 countries. He’s spent more than 3,400 hours of his life airborne in different Air Force aircraft. The foreign flights range from 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Norway to tropical beaches off Venezuela in areas he said resembled the African Serengeti.
He also managed to find time along the way to earn three master’s degrees.
The mission he now commands will need all of those years of professional and academic experience. The 56th OG serves as the primary unit training F-16 pilots, whether they’re new to fighter jets or pilots requalifying at Luke Air Force Base and moving on to other assignments.
The group also instructs intelligence Airmen focusing on providing pilots information they need to accomplish the missions they fly every day. Also trained under Hanna’s watch are weapons directors from the 107th and 607th air control squadrons as well as air traffic controllers.
Because the group and the 56th Fighter Wing’s mission revolves heavily around training, that’s where his priorities are.
“Ultimately, my goal is to leave the group in better shape than when I took over,” he said. “That is going to be tough because my predecessor left me a pretty well-oiled machine.”
Hanna knows first-hand what’s at stake. He commanded a fighter squadron at Hill AFB, Utah. He also led that squadron in combat while deployed to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“It’s a dangerous business, but I’ve come to terms with that,” he said. “The way we train, conduct our risk management program and the things we focus on when we brief and debrief all work toward preventing airplanes from running into each other. I’m comfortable we have the measures in place where I don’t stay awake at night wondering what’s going to happen next, and I’m very confident that we’re doing the right things.”
Any nerves he may have had from running a unit as large as the group he’s in charge of have waned thanks to the people assigned to his command, he said.
“This is honestly the first place I’ve been where all the commanders and directors of operations are very strong,” he said. “All the squadrons have their own unique challenges and it’s neat to watch the commanders work through the challenges and watch the DOs work together to solve problems. I also have a world-class chief as my superintendant and my first sergeant is awesome, as well. Together, they put the finishing touches on my leadership team.
“I’m surprised about how well the wing functions as a whole. It is pretty special to have four group commanders who talk to each other regularly and genuinely like each other. I’ve just been blessed to be a fellow group commander with the other commanders.”
Hanna said one of the most important parts to having a career that’s working on its third decade is balancing work and family.
“My wife and children are a huge part of my life, and they stay with me through all the turmoil that defines an Air Force career,” he said. “They’re much of the inspiration of why I’ve stayed in the Air Force because they’re ‘all in’ as well. I’m fortunate that I’ve found myself a strong partner who’s stuck with me through all of this.”