The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The new pick to lead the Air Force is a decorated fighter pilot who was once shot down

Gen. David L. Goldfein is shown here taking the oath of office in August 2015 from Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as Goldfein became the Air Force’s No. 2 officer. (Scott M. Ash/ Released by the Air Force)
Placeholder while article actions load

Gen. David L. Goldfein has been nominated to become the new top officer in the Air Force, nearly 17 years after he survived being shot down in an F-16C fighter jet while flying a combat mission over Serbia.

The decision by Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter was announced Tuesday by the Pentagon. If confirmed by the Senate, Goldfein will replace Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, who is retiring in July after serving as Air Force chief since August 2012.

“I’m extremely humbled by the nomination to serve as the Air Force’s twenty first Chief of Staff,” Goldfein said in a statement released by the service. “If confirmed, I pledge to serve our Airmen and their families unwaveringly and honor our remarkable heritage and legacy of integrity, service, and excellence. I also look forward to joining my fellow service chiefs as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

How Gen. David Goldfein survived getting shot down over Serbia

The move continues a swift ascent for Goldfein, who was promoted to four-star general and became the Air Force’s No. 2 officer in August. He previously served from August 2013 to August 2015 as director of the Joint Staff and from August 2011 to August 2013 as commander of Air Forces Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East.

Goldfein is still known for his experiences flying in combat, however. He has often recounted the night a surface-to-air missile exploded near his fighter jet over Belgrade on May 2, 1999, as the United States and NATO allies carried out Operation Allied Force, an air war against Slobodan Milosevic and his Serbian forces after numerous atrocities in the Balkans.

Goldfein ejected from his F-16C that night and parachuted into an open field in Kosovo. He was recovered two hours later by a combat search-and-rescue team in an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter.

The general has also flown combat missions in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom and has more than 4,200 hours flying hours overall in several aircraft, including the F-16 and F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter. His awards include the Distinguished Flying Cross with valor device, the Legion of Merit and the Defense Distinguished Service Medal.

Air Force Secretary Deborah James said Tuesday in a news release that Goldfein possesses the experience and vision needed to address “dynamic global challenges” and higher command.

“He knows how to build and sustain key partnerships, has important warfighting experience, and will exercise the critical judgement required to balance our manpower and resources as we shape tomorrow’s Air Force,” James said in the news release. “There is not a better person to lead our Airmen into the next century of Airpower dominance.”

The Pentagon also announced Monday that Carter has nominated Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Q. Brown, the current commander of Air Forces Central Command, to become the No. 2 commander for U.S. Central Command. Brown has led the air war against the Islamic State militant group while overseeing AFCENT.