C-130 MASTER NAVIGATOR
314th Air Lift Wing
Mark Vlahos is one of my newest friends, however, I feel I have so many commons with him. We both are in love with the might ‘Herc’ (C-130 Hercules), he as a master navigator and also ex Cmdr of a C-130 Sqn (763rd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron) and Vice Wing Cmdr of the 314th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base, me as Hellenic Air Force C-130B/H Crew Chief (reserve). I don’t know if the Greek readers ‘catch’ it but YES, Navigators can command squadrons and wings! Our other commonality is our passion for aviation history. Mark is a great historian and already wrote two books and now is in the process of writing his third one (like myself hopefully)! Anyway, I and my team are very proud to introduce to our followers Colonel Mark Vlahos USAF (ret.). No one can tell his family story except him so in his own words:
"I’m third-generation Greek American, Angelo Vlahos, my Grandfather was born in Northern Greece in 1885. At the age of 15, he left home on his own to improve his life. He made his way to England and worked as a fireman on merchant ships, shoveling coal into boilers. From there, he made his way to America and stayed. He continued to work as a merchant mariner, upgrading to the position of the oiler, he then made his way down to Panama and helped build the Panama Canal. On June 1, 1942, he was working as an oiler on the S.S. Hampton Roads. The ship was torpedoed by U-106 at 0540 A.M. Angelo was 57 years old at the time, luckily, he made it off the ship alive, 5 of the crew of 28 perished. After floating in a raft for 7 hours he was picked up. He never sailed again. My father Christopher Vlahos, Angelo’s oldest son, followed in his footsteps and entered the United States Marchant Marine Academy (Kings Point) in 1944. Dad trained on Liberty Ships during the last year of the war. Upon graduation from Kings Point, dad accepted a Naval Commission and served on the USS Furse, a destroyer through the Korean War. He separated from the Navy in 1954 and served in the Reserves. I was born on April 11, 1960. I followed the call of Service of my Greek parents and entered the United States Air Force as Second Lieutenant in 1982."
New graduate Vlahos waited six months to begin undergraduate navigator training at Mather Air Force Base, California; and in the fall of 1983, he received his wings and first choice of aircraft—the C-130. After completing survival training and qualification in the C-130, Vlahos was assigned to the 61st Tactical Airlift Squadron (TAS), Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, from 1984-to 89. Anyone who flies will say that the first operational flying assignment is the best and that friends are made for life.
"Our squadron was full of young, adventurous aviators just starting out in life with just enough Vietnam era guys around to not only teach and season us but provide just enough adult supervision"
Vlahos was a road warrior who flew more than 600 hours his first year in the C-130, an aircraft so versatile that no two missions were ever the same. From airland to airdrop, high level to low level, the aircraft was made to take a beating and deliver.
"One night you would be dropping paratroopers at 3 a.m. at Fort Bragg, two weeks later, you could be leaving on a three-week Pacific floater delivering mail and supplies to remote islands."
Tour highlights included the entire squadron deploying to Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, for 75-days each year to support airlift in Europe. In 1988, Vlahos married his wife, Julie, and their wedding reception was held at the Little Rock Air Force Base Officers’ Club. Vlahos upgraded to instructor and evaluator navigator during this tour and amassed more than 2,200 flying hours. He also graduated from the Military Airlift Command’s Combat Aircrew Training School—the forerunner of today’s Weapons School—at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. With five years on station, Vlahos knew it was time to move on. In the spring of 1989, he chanced upon an opportunity to interview for a special duty assignment at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, with the 89th Airlift Wing, which provides airlift support to the U.S. president, vice president, cabinet members, and other high-ranking U.S. and foreign government officials. In that cycle, Vlahos was one of two navigators selected for duty on VC-135 and VC-137 aircraft flying worldwide shuttle diplomacy missions. From 1989 to 1994, Vlahos’ missions included flights with the vice president, cabinet secretaries, and congressional leaders. He fondly remembers flying former first lady Barbara Bush to Hawaii and meeting her in person. During this assignment, his wife delivered two children: Benjamin in 1991, and Brooke in 1993. Benjamin followed his steps in USAF and now he is a T-38 Talon crew chief.
Colonel Mark C. Vlahos retired as the Assistant Director of Operations for 19th Air Force, Randolph Air Force Base, Texas after 29 years of service in 2011. In this capacity, he was responsible for the training of nearly 25,000 U.S. and allied students annually. This activity ranged from entry-level undergraduate flying through advanced combat crew training and ultimately provided fully qualified aircrew personnel to the warfighting commands. The 19th Air Force is composed of more than 38,000 Total Force personnel and 1,720 aircraft assigned to 17 wings and three independent training groups located across the United States. He served in five operational flying assignments on C-130 and VC-137 aircraft and served as Vice Wing Commander at the largest C-130 base in the world. From July 2001 to June 2002 he commanded the 763rd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, Seeb Air Base, Sultanate of Oman, supporting Operations SOUTHERN WATCH and ENDURING FREEDOM. The 763rd played a major role in inserting combat forces and supplies during the early stages of the war in Afghanistan. Colonel Vlahos was a primary crew member on the first Air Mobility Command C-130 to land at both Bagram and Mazar-I-Sharif airfields in the war. Under his leadership, the 763rd earned the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with Valor. Colonel Vlahos is a master navigator with more than 4,200 hours, including 130 combat and 40 combat support hours, and earned his basic parachutist badge. He is a fully qualified JSO. (Mark Vlahos)
In 1994, after 11 years of flying, came a line number for promotion to major, along with a staff tour at Headquarters U.S. Air Force at the Pentagon. Vlahos worked as a crisis action planner and as a mobility force basing manager on the operations side of the air staff. After three years in these two jobs, Vlahos was chosen to work in the Air Force Colonels’ Group and was charged with filling 400 Air Force colonels billets in the greater Washington, D.C., area, and running the command selection board process. The wide variety of issues worked and skills obtained from these headquarters’ staff jobs would well serve Vlahos later in his career as a senior officer. In 1998, after four years at the Pentagon, and with a line number for lieutenant colonel, Vlahos was ready to go back to a cockpit and compete for a squadron leadership position. He headed back to Little Rock Air Force Base for requalification in the C-130 and an assignment to the 62nd Airlift Squadron (AS) as an instructor navigator and assistant operations officer. With lineage to World War II, the 62 AS trained all crew positions in tactical C-130 operations, including low-level flying, airdrop, and short-field landings. In 1999, Lt. Col. Vlahos was selected to serve as the squadron’s director of operations. In this capacity, he was responsible for the daily operation of 22 aircraft, nearly 200 crewmembers, and 300 maintenance personnel. Because flying occurred nearly around the clock, the assignment was a meat-grinder of a job, albeit thoroughly rewarding. For instance, at the annual “Yacht Club” reunion—the 62d World War II patch bore a sailboat—Vlahos had the honor and privilege of meeting several 62 AS heroes who had led the D-Day airdrops in World War II. In June 2001, Vlahos found himself on the other side of the world on a one-year remote tour commanding the 763rd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron (EAS) at Seeb North Air Base in Muscat, Oman. The 763th EAS provided airlift and aeromedical evacuation flights supporting Operation Southern Watch. The squadron’s mission was forever changed by the events of 9/11. Located just four hours flight time from Afghanistan, the squadron nearly tripled in size, and Seeb North Air Base became a major cargo hub and home of the first field hospital supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.
"I’ll never forget the adrenaline rush as we flew missions prepositioning combat search and rescue forces on the border of Pakistan just before the air war commencing on Oct. 7, 2001."
On the night of Nov. 26, 2001, two 763 EAS C-130s landed on a dirt landing zone named Rhino, and the forced entry of conventional forces to Afghanistan had begun. Under Vlahos’ leadership, the 763 EAS amassed 2,800 combat sorties, flying more than 6,500 flying hours, without loss of life or aircraft. The squadron transported more than 500 Taliban detainees from pickup points to the first holding camp at Kandahar, Afghanistan. Under the direct threat of enemy attack, missions were accomplished utilizing night-vision goggles in hostile terrain. During the war’s early stages, Vlahos was a primary crew member on the first C-130 to land at both Bagram and Mazar-I-Sharif airfields, Afghanistan, to deliver combat forces and equipment. Under his leadership, the 763rd earned the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with Valor. In June 2002, Vlahos was reunited with his family and assigned to Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, as a deputy division chief at Headquarters Air Education and Training Command. In this job, he managed billets for officers and enlisted airmen and ensured that all Air Force flying and technical training pipelines had enough qualified instructors to meet production demands. Barely two years into the job, Vlahos was selected to attend a year of senior service school at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF) at Fort McNair, Washington, D.C., and his promotion ceremony to colonel occurred in the middle of the school year. Upon graduation from ICAF in 2005, Vlahos was sent to Yongsan Garrison, Seoul, Republic of South Korea, for a joint, two-year accompanied tour. Working for an Army four-star general, Vlahos served as the director of personnel and manpower for 29,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines and their dependents as part of United States Forces Korea. By far the most challenging job of his career, Vlahos had both a U.S. military chain of command and worked for a Korean admiral in a joint and combined chain of command. The U.S. contingent exercised hard with its Korean counterparts, as a “state of war” technically still existed. Nonetheless, the Vlahos family managed to take a USO trip to Beijing, to see the Great Wall of China, and to vacation in Guam.
Various images from Mark Vlahos service within the USAF, from his early days in the Air Force in Air Transport Command until his duties as the Commander, of the 763d Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, Seeb North Air Base, Sultanate of Oman. (Mark Vlahos)
In 2007, after two years in Korea, the Vlahos clan was ready to return to the U.S. For his hard work, Vlahos was selected to serve as the vice wing commander of the 314th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base. Thrilled to again fly the C-130, Vlahos oversaw a base with 88 assigned aircraft and more than 5,000 people on 5,000-plus acres. While at Little Rock, Vlahos surpassed 4,000 flying hours in the C-130. The ‘E’ models that he had flown throughout his career were being retired, and he flew two on their last flights to the boneyard. Also, Vlahos helped the Jacksonville Museum of Military History obtain a surplus C130E that was destined for the boneyard. Now on static display, the aircraft can be seen as travelers on U.S. Route 167 pass the airbase. In 2009, Vlahos was assigned to serve as the director of operations at Headquarters 19th Air Force, Randolph Air Force Base, leading a staff responsible for the execution of nearly all of the Air Force’s flying training, which included more than 19,000 students, 23 different aircraft, and 579,000 flying hours. He also played a major role in establishing the new navigator school (now called combat systems officer) at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. For this training, he flew as an initial instructor cadre on the T-1A modified. After nearly 29 years of service, he retired on May 1, 2011. Colonel Vlahos logged more than 4,200 hours, including 130 combat and 40 combat support hours, and earned his basic parachutist badge. He is a fully qualified JSO. His major awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit (2), Bronze Star, Air Medal, Aerial Achievement Medal, and the Order of National Merit (Samil Medal), Republic of South Korea. However, retirement gave its place to a very active life. According to himself:
"Upon retirement from the USAF, I continued to work for the United States Air Force as a Civilian planner and strategist. But more importantly, I am following my passion as a historian. My specialty now is WWII Airborne Troop Carrier and Glider history. I’m working on my third book – Leading the Way to Victory, A History of the 60th Troop Carrier Group 1940-1945; this is the story of a Group that flew the first combat parachute drop in History in November of 1942 during the Invasion of North Africa, towed British Gliders during the Invasion of Sicily, supported partisans in Yugoslavia, and dropped paratroopers in Greece. I hope to have the book complete next year. My last book, “Men Will Come” A History of the 314th Troop Carrier Group 1942 – 1945 was published in December of 2019."
Except for an aviation historian Mark participates in reenactions of American history, specifically from the WW2 and American Civil War periods.
Col. Mark Vlahos, 314th Airlift Wing vice commander flew his last flight before his next assignment at Randolph AFB, Texas where he served as the 19th Air Force assistant director of operations. This flight took place in one of the 314th AW C-130E's specifically the 47-848. During his stay in Little Rock AFB, his duties were to supervise the training of C-130 aircrews for all services in the Department of Defense, Coast Guard, and 34 allied nations, as well as C-21 aircrew through the 45th Airlift Squadron at Keesler AFB, Miss. For his service Col. Vlahos awarded the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit (2), the Bronze Star Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal with three oak leaf clusters, the Air Medal, the Aerial Achievement Medal, and the Order of National Security Merit Samil Medal (Republic of Korea) (Artwork by Tom Cooper & photos by Mark Vlahos)
Historical reenactment (or re-enactment) is an educational or entertainment activity in which mainly amateur hobbyists and history enthusiasts put on uniforms and follow a plan to recreate aspects of a historical event or period. While historical reenactors are generally amateurs, some participants are members of armed forces or historians like Mark Vlahos. The participants, called reenactors, often do research on the equipment, uniform, and other gear they will carry or use. Reenactors buy the apparel or items they need from specialty stores or make items themselves. Historical reenactments cover a wide span of history, from the Roman empire to the major world wars and the Korean War of the 20th century. Except for reenactment, Mark Vlahos is a very active author having written two books, one covering Winfield Scott strategy doctrine of the Union Forces during the civil war and one the history of the 314th Troop Carrier Group 1942-45. Both are available in the following links (Mark Vlahos):
1. Dimitris Vassilopoulos personal correspondence with Col. Mark Vlahos USAF (ret.)
2. Corpsreview, The Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets Alumni Magazine No.26 Spring 2016: Col. Mark “Plug” Vlahos ’82, U.S. Air Force (retired) Service in Flight