When visiting dignitaries — generals, senators and the like — first enter the headquarters building at Vance Air Force Base, they pass a series of photographs under a sign reading “Partners in the Sky.”
The photos are of a select group of civilians who have gone above and beyond in their efforts to promote and support the men and women of Vance Air Force Base.
It is an exclusive group. Since the program was started in late 1996 by then-71st Flying Training Wing commander Col. Buster Ellis (who retired in 2006 as a major general), only nine members have been inducted. The latest, Mary Feightner, received the honor earlier this year from outgoing wing commander Col. Chris Nowland (now Brig. Gen. Nowland).
“It is a program to highlight people within our community who, through their own volition, have gone out and supported the base far beyond anything you would expect a normal person to do,” said Bob Farrell, Vance’s chief of community relations. “We do get support from all over the community, but this group of folks have just taken it on themselves to really become involved with Vance.”
Initially six people received Partner in the Sky honors — Margaret Buvinger, Oscar Curtis, Ed Greven, Bill Shewey, Ken Slack and Mike Cooper. Of those, two since have died — Curtis in 2005 and Buvinger in 2006.
Since the inaugural group, only three more members have been added — Jon Blankenship, Ernie Currier and Feightner.
Members of the Partners In the Sky group have been involved in every aspect of support for Vance — through the local chapter of Air Force Association, through their tenure as mayor (Cooper and Currier), through the Greater Enid Chamber of Commerce or simply as committed individuals.
“A lot of them have been associated with the Enlisted Appreciation Night, in particular,” Farrell said. “Mary is involved with Enlisted Appreciation Night but also with finding class sponsors within the community for us. Of course, anything you ask Mary to do, she’ll do.”
Some are involved with the military far beyond Vance. Cooper, military liaison for the city of Enid, is chairman of the Oklahoma Strategic Military Planning Commission, while Shewey serves on the Air Education and Training Command Commander’s Group.
Vance wing commanders are the ones who choose those to receive lifetime appointments as Partners in the Sky members.
“Wing commanders have it within their authority to appoint anyone that they would like to be a Partner in the Sky,” Farrell said. “They do it very selectively and infrequently, as you can tell. We’ve had more wing commanders during that period of time (nine) than we have had new Partners in the Sky, which means not every wing commander has selected an individual during their tenure.”
There is no set forum for recognizing Partners In the Sky. Currier was honored during a farewell reception when he was ending his term as mayor of Enid. Feightner was honored by Nowland during the outgoing wing commander’s farewell reception. Others have come in various settings.
“Other folks were brought out here at various times and told about their selection,” Farrell said. “It can happen at anytime with anybody. That’s up to the wing commander.”
Each member of the group receives base passes for access to the installation, they are invited to all major events on base like changes of command, for example, and some receive plaques denoting the honor.
“We try to place as much emphasis as we can on the community,” Farrell said, “because they certainly place a lot of emphasis on Vance. We think the community has gone far, far above what would be expected of any other community around an Air Force installation or military installation in the way that they go out of their way to support us.”