EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — It is not often that a change of command ceremony includes award of the Humanitarian Service Award, but this ceremony at the “Center Of the Aerospace Testing Universe” did exactly that.
When the ceremonial guidon pennant for the 412th Test Wing passed from the command of Brig. Gen. Matthew W. Higer on Aug. 18, 2023, to Col. Douglas P. “Beaker” Wickert, it happened minutes after the presiding officer in charge, Maj. Gen. Evan C. Dertien, commander of the Air Force Test Center, awarded the humanitarian decoration to Higer.
The medal was awarded for keeping the nation’s premier test flight base “a green dot in a sea of red dots” during the two-year-plus COVID-19 pandemic that encompassed most of the time that Higer served as commander at Edwards.
Higer’s command of 412th TW commenced in Feb. 20, scarce weeks before a “lock it down” order closed the base to ordinary traffic because of COVID, and continued for 1,290 days, finishing out only as the threat of COVID receded. Meanwhile, Dertien noted, Higer’s leadership set the pace for the rest of the nation’s military with Edwards leading the way in vaccination and protective measures to keep the base secure and operational.
Along with leadership of Edwards, Higer, Dertien said, “Assumed the role of de facto public health officer” whose actions resulted in “saving thousands of lives and livelihoods.”
During that period, Higer’s command oversaw developmental test and evaluation of the F-35 fighter, tanker aircraft including KC-46, KC-135, KC-10, more fighters, the F-22 and F-16, a trainer, the T-7A, and bombers, B-1, B-2, and preparation for the B-21 Raider, the nation’s newest strategic bomber.
Additionally the base hosts a Space Force element and is conducting development on hypersonic technologies.
Edwards is the second largest base in the Air Force, and the command includes Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif. Among the dignitaries attending the Aug. 18 ceremony was Rep. Mike Garcia, a Navy fighter pilot veteran who flew missions during the Iraq War. The ranking civilian visitor, Garcia attended with scores of public officials and community leaders, including the Edwards Civilian-Military Support Group.
In changing the command, both Higer and Wickert cited the emerging strategic threat of China with a growing “sophisticated military that threatens the rule of law in the world for the first time in 80 years since World War II.”
Citing an enduring theme of his period of command, Higer said the competitive advantages held by the United States include “freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the right to vote, diversity of thought … and the relentless pursuit to leave it better than you found it.” To that he added, “Resilience.”
He lauded the men and women of Edwards as demonstrative of resilience.
“These are vital competitive advantages grounded in our Constitution as we compete on every combat front and warfighting arena,” Higer said.
“Thank you for the trust and confidence you have placed in me this past 2 Ω years,” Higer said. “I am honored to be a member of this top-class team of servants, and servant leaders.”
Higer thanked the medical team that vaccinated multitudes, and protected the health of the 19,500 active duty, reserve, civil service and civilian contractors at Edwards. He also thanked the medical team that helped him meet an existential health crisis, whom he credited for saving his life. The commander said he relished that he was handing command to one of his “oldest friends in the Air Force,” Wickert.
“I know you’re going to crush it,” Higer said.
Wickert’s first words as commander were “Wow!” and “Wow!” again. He referred to his excitement at the prospect of leading the team of the “Center of the Aerospace Testing Universe.”
A command pilot and distinguished graduate of the Air Force Academy, Wickert was also a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School. With combat time included, most recently he was head of the Department of Aeronautics at the Air Force Academy.
Every generation of fighter plane, and every bomber since World War II has been tested and developed at Edwards, Wickert said.
“To the men and women of the 412th Test Wing, I am incredibly excited to serve as your commander,” Wickert said.
In like mind with Higer, Wickert cited the strategic peril of an emergent militarily aggressive China.
“A war between the United States and China would be devastating, potentially civilization ending,” Wickert said. “The best hope we have to avoid a catastrophic war is to be so overwhelmingly powerful that China decides it is not worth a war.”
He added, “The Air Force we are building at Edwards is the 21st century Air Force that is so good that your sons and daughters won’t have to fight. Let’s do it teammates.”
Both leaders thanked their spouses, Lesley Higer and Jody Wickert, for their un-ending support of work that is difficult and demanding. Both hailed the successes of their children, grown, and nearly grown, some following their path into service.
With that, the command changed after 1,290 days of pandemic challenges and demands of leadership. One thing Higer said was that he would “dearly like a nap.”
Prior to assuming command of the 412th TW, Wickert was the Permanent Professor and Head of the Department of Aeronautics at the Air Force Academy. He served as the chair of the Engineering Division overseeing six engineering departments while leading the largest engineering department at the Academy with more than 60 faculty and researchers supporting education and research in aerodynamics, flight mechanics, propulsion, hypersonic, aircraft structures, and experimental methods. The Department of Aeronautics hosts three DOD research centers and the world-renowned Aeronautics Laboratory.