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Meet the commander: Col. Eric Mack, 363d ISR Wing

Group of people posing for family photo.

Colonel Eric Mack, 363d Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Wing commander, poses with his family after the 363d ISR Wing change of command ceremony, June 25, 2021, at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. AJ Hyatt)

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. --

Colonel Eric Mack took over as the 363d Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Wing commander back in June 2021, but this isn’t the first time he has been with the wing. He returns five years later, after first serving under the wing as the commander of the 25th Intelligence Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida. One thing Mack is all about is setting the example for his Airmen.

Mack, a Colorado Springs native, is no stranger to the military – as his father served 24 years in the Air Force as a career enlisted aviator. He went on to receive his commission from the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) with a degree in Political Science in 1996.

As the commander of the 363d ISR Wing, Mack leads the Air Force’s all-source analysis and full spectrum targeting enterprises for Combined Forces Air Component Commanders worldwide, airborne ISR for sensitive joint special operations globally, and directs ISR testing, tactics development, and advanced training for air, space, and cyber operations. He’s served in a variety of ISR Operations, Intelligence Community, and Special Operations positions. He’s had numerous ISR operational deployments in support of Operations SOUTHERN WATCH and IRAQI FREEDOM, and he is a fully Joint Qualified Officer with previous command experience at both the Squadron and Group level.

During the interview, we got to learn more about Mack’s philosophy style and what drives him.

Why did you join the military?

I joined the military for a few reasons. The main one is the example my dad set growing up. Hearing the stories of my dad’s service and the interesting career he had. He had a lot of great stories and friendships he had formed and that sounded cool to me. The thought of service to country has also always been a key part of who I am as an individual and giving back to those around me. And when it came time to go to college, I chose the Air Force Academy for a few reasons. One, it had a great academic program and [the other reason] I had a guaranteed job in the Air Force at the end of it.

Why did you choose the Intel career field?

Coming out of USAFA, I had the opportunity to go to UPT (undergraduate pilot training), but quite frankly, I had attended preliminary flight training at USAFA and I didn’t find it that interesting. I’ve always loved strategy, politics and history and I thought the intelligence-career field had so many different elements to that and different roles and jobs that you just don’t get bored. Every assignment is something new. I just thought working in intelligence would be more fulfilling than flying aircraft.

What is it like returning to the 363d ISR Wing as the commander?

Being the commander of the 25th IS was amazing. It has such a fantastic mission and Airmen. To support special operations with the high ops tempo and the feeling of satisfaction in the impact that you have – being the commander there was a wonderful opportunity.

At the time, to be honest, we didn’t really understand our place within the Wing (363d), because of the disparate missions across the Wing and that previously our special operations intelligence units fell directly underneath the Number Air Force (AFISRA which became the 25th Air Force and is now the 16th Air Force). Having the wing architecture introduced above us - there was a lot of growing pains with “how does the wing support us and how do we link in with the other units?”

Coming back five years later, it’s pretty amazing to see how far the Wing has evolved. The Wing has worked through a lot of its growing pains and normalized its operations. The staff is super focused on being value added to ALL the missions and Airmen throughout the Wing. There is a lot of great innovation across the Wing, and we have a fantastic staff that engages up and down the chain to help accelerate the changes we need to modernize how we execute our mission, and to prioritize our efforts accordingly as we tackle the resource requirements (for the squadrons) to get after the high-end fight.

Can you expand on your leadership philosophy?

“Leaders create the conditions for success. They strive for personal excellence, they master their skills, and they constantly improve themselves mentally, physically, and spiritually.  Leaders grow, mentor, and sustain their teams, and foster an environment where individuals fulfill their potential.”

My leadership philosophy for leaders at every level is pretty simple; We must live the core values, leave the campground better than we found it, and make our Airmen’s lives better - It’s all about the environment.

This has always stuck with me as the simplest way to capture our responsibilities as leaders. If we can set the example of living the core values and focus on leaving our “campground” better than we found it, which means whatever your organization role is [whether that’s at the flight level, squadron level or the wing level] – leave your organization or work center better than you found it. And then keep in mind that your responsibility as a leader is to make your Airmen’s lives better. Keep those tenants as your North Star and the rest takes care of itself. I think as leaders we can be inundated with new leadership books, concepts and things like that. I think those are all really TTPs (tactics, techniques and procedures) … but if you make sure you are trying to leave your organization better and take care of your folks – it’s all technique after that.

Then at the end of the day – it’s all about the environment. We must establish a positive environment where folks have the psychological safety to perform to their highest potential. Really, it’s empowering folks to take risk and carry out our intent as well. We want our Airmen to feel safe in an inclusive environment, but also feel safe to take risk and potentially fail, but hopefully fail forward, learn, iterate and move forward.

What is your hidden talent?

Probably not the most hidden of talents, but I was in the Air Force World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). WCAP is a DoD program for elite athletes to train full-time in their sport and pursue an opportunity to participate in the Olympics. I did that coming out of Intel School for two years, competing and trying to earn a spot on the U.S. Track & Field team [at 10,000 meters]. Afterwards, I went back to the intelligence-career field, and then competed in WCAP again as a captain – that time in the marathon. I had the opportunity, between my time at USAFA and WCAP, to compete in two separate Olympics trials and ran 2:12 to finish 8th in the Chicago Marathon. I’m very thankful that the Air Force gave me that opportunity to pursue those dreams. It’s one of the things I highlight to Airmen - that there’s opportunities to pursue anything you want to in the Air Force.

I still work out 4 to 5 times a week. I just ran a 9:23 [on my most recent PT test], which is about three minutes slower than probably my fastest. However, I think you must continue to emphasize a healthy lifestyle, lead from the front, and maintain physical training standards – it’s our expectation of Airmen.

We are trying to emphasize resiliency and getting healthy and the positive impact that has on your ability to do the mission. It’s more important to have a healthy lifestyle than focus on passing a test.

Now that most of my running days are behind me – I really enjoy team sports. My favorite is Ultimate Frisbee, and I try to play with all my squadrons when I visit.

How do you relieve stress?

Working out is definitely my favorite way to relieve stress. Spending time with my family is also huge. I have two young kids who keep me on my toes and keep me smiling. They are getting to the age where they are now playing sports. They just started taekwondo. You lose yourself in what they are doing and that’s very relaxing. My family also loves being outdoors, so any time we can get away to hike, hunt and fish is great!

What is your favorite movie?

True Romance. It sounds like a romantic comedy. The script is actually written by Quentin Tarantino and it’s kind of like that classic Tarantino that you would see in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, but he was not able to direct the film due to timing. It’s an amazing violent love story with great dialogue and phenomenal cast. I highly recommend it.

What is the best advice you have received?

This goes back to my desire to join the World Class Athlete Program, but it has applied several times in my career - “MAKE THE BASTARDS TELL YOU NO!”

Whether it’s the opportunity to run, which is a strange thing if you don’t equate Air Force service with playing sports, or pursuing that dream or the opportunities to lead in the AF.

I had a unique career with a lot of time outside of the core Air Force, so I had to fight and earn the opportunity to lead in the Air Force and become a squadron commander, group commander and now a wing commander. I’ve been really lucky, but at the end of the day if you want to pursue opportunities that are important to you – you have to put your name in the hat and “make the bastards tell you no!”

What advice would you give your younger self?

I ran a lot when I was younger, so I would tell myself to rest more. However, that advice applies to more than just athletics, but also to our careers. I’m a big believer in working hard, and playing hard.

When you are really focused on being an Olympic athlete – you have a tendency to think that if you run harder, run more miles, etc. … that you will get better, but you also have to recover. You have to take those rest days. Your body needs to recover and absorb the training so you can continue to absorb more training in the future and the same thing goes for your Air Force career.

I’ve applied the same energy that I had as a runner to leading and to the mission, and so I’m a big believer that we have to remember to, especially as leaders, take a step back and take leave, recharge our batteries – so we can come back to our jobs refreshed with more cognitive energy to accomplish the mission. As leaders we must provide that example to our Airmen, the folks we lead to let them know it’s good for them to take some time off. You can’t take care of the mission or your Airmen, unless you take care of yourself.