Brigadier General Thomas Tinsley, commander of the 3rd Wing at Elmendorf AFB. Tinsley died from a gunshot wound at his base residence on Sunday night (USAF photo).
The Air Force is investigating the death of Brigadier General Thomas Tinsley, commander of the 3rd Wing at Elemendorf AFB, Alaska.
According to a statement released by the service, Tinsley died from a gunshot wound. He was declared dead around 10:30 last night at his residence on the base, which is located on the eastern side of Anchorage.
Elmendorf medical personnel responded to the scene, according to public affairs officials. Their statement provided no additional details on incident, and whether Tinsley's death was an accident or a suicide.
General Tinsley returned to Elmendorf in May 2007 to take command of the 3rd Wing, the Air Force's second F-22 unit. A veteran F-15 and F-22 pilot, Tinsley previously served as commander of the 12th Fighter Squadron at the Alaskan base; commander of the 1st Operations Group at Langley AFB, Virginia, and as executive officer to the former Air Force Chief of Staff, General T. Michael Moseley.
A career fighter pilot, Tinsley's career was clearly on the fast track at the time of his death. Leadership of the 3rd Wing is considered a plum assignment, and his past tour as Moseley's executive officer suggested that Tinsley was destined for even greater responsibilities as a flag officer.
But all of that came to a sudden end last night, with a fatal gunshot in the wing commander's residence. While the investigation is continuing, it will raise inevitable questions about the general's mental condition, and his access to special access programs relating to the capabilities of the F-22.
Pilots and other personnel who work with the low-observable aircraft are "read in" or given access to the most secret details of the F-22. Clearance for those programs are based on additional background checks, beyond those required for a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI) security clearance.
If Tinsley's death is ruled a suicide, it will also raise concerns about the Air Force's vaunted "wingman" program. While the service's suicide rate is below that of the general population, suicide remains a leading killer of Air Force personnel. After a rash of suicides several years ago, the service launched the wingman effort, to identify aimen who were under severe stress and might harm themselves.
As its name implies, the program is based on the time-honored concept of experienced pilots looking out for the junior flyers on their wing--and vice-versa. For troubled airmen, the wingman effort stresses observation and intervention, rooted in a "culture of commitment."
The wingman program (and other efforts) are widely credited with a short-term drop in suicides among Air Force members. One year after the wingman initiative began, the service's suicide rate dropped by almost 50%, from 15.2 per 100,00 airmen in 2004, to 7.8 in 2005.
However, the USAF's suicide rose again in 2006, reaching 11.4 deaths per 100,000 airmen. The increase was largely blamed on more frequent deployments and increased operations tempo, although statistics show that over half of all Air Force members have never served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Capt. Kelley Jeter, a spokeswoman for the 3rd Wing, described Tinsley as a charismatic leader who had the ability to make a lengthy briefing "feel like it only lasted 10 minutes."
During a presentation last Thursday, Tinsley "lit up the room by conveying his love for the wing," Jeter said.
UPDATE/According to the Anchorage Daily News, the Air Force has confirmed that Tinsley died from a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest. It has not been determined if the shooting was accidental or a suicide.