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Changing the face of war; saving lives – the legacy of Bill Grimes

Bill Grimes prepares to speak after a ceremony to make him an honorary chief master sergeant shortly after his retirement as an active duty colonel.

Bill Grimes prepares to speak after a ceremony to make him an honorary chief master sergeant shortly after his retirement as an active duty colonel. The honor is the highest tribute chief master sergeants can bestow on a leader. Grimes was always very proud of his chief’s stripes and they hung in his home office until his passing, according to long-time colleague Kim High. (Courtesy photo)

Then-Capt. William Zimmerman (left) poses with Bill Grimes in front of an SR-71 Blackbird during the aircraft’s reactivation in the mid-1990s. (Courtesy photo)

Then-Capt. William Zimmerman (left) poses with Bill Grimes in front of an SR-71 Blackbird during the aircraft’s reactivation in the mid-1990s. (Courtesy photo)

An MQ-1 Predator flies above the flight line during launch and recovery training at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada March 14, 2015. The weaponizing of Predator by Bill Grimes’ Big Safari team is credited with changing the way air wars are fought. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo)

An MQ-1 Predator flies above the flight line during launch and recovery training at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada March 14, 2015. The weaponizing of Predator by Bill Grimes’ Big Safari team is credited with changing the way air wars are fought. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo)

Master Sgt. Chris Thompson, chief joint terminal attack controller instructor at Fort Carson, Colo., deployed to the 704th Expeditionary Support Squadron at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, communicates via the remotely operated video enhanced receiver on Sept. 21, 2007.

Master Sgt. Chris Thompson, chief joint terminal attack controller instructor at Fort Carson, Colorado, deployed to the 704th Expeditionary Support Squadron at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, communicates via the remotely operated video enhanced receiver on Sept. 21, 2007. The original ROVER’s design was put together in a matter of days by Big Safari, led by Bill Grimes, in response to a request by frontline warfighters. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Angelique Perez)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – On Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, former Big Safari Director and retired Air Force Col. Bill Grimes passed away. While his was not a household name and Big Safari -- a secretive Air Force acquisition program for specialized special mission aircraft -- is not known for being very public, Grimes’ legacy is so important, and his efforts so enduring, that his colleagues felt his story must be told. Told so that all Americans would understand the impact that one man can have on the Air Force, the U.S. military and, indeed, on modern warfare itself.

Grimes was commissioned into the Air Force in 1959 and held the aeronautical rating of Master-Navigator with over 5,500 flying hours, primarily in reconnaissance aircraft, before rising up to lead Big Safari, first as a colonel and later as a government civilian before his retirement in 2002.

While much of what Big Safari has done and continues to do is classified, two declassified stories illustrate the immense difference that Grimes’ leadership made to American warfighters: the arming of the MQ-1 Predator and the development of the Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver, or ROVER, both of which forever changed the face of warfare.

In the early-2000s, the Predator was still an unarmed remotely piloted aircraft used primarily for surveillance, according to William “Mike” Zimmerman, a long-time co-worker of Grimes and current support contractor at Big Safari. The Bosnian conflict was raging and fighter pilots were having a difficult time finding targets that the Predators were seeing – partly because the points of views were so different but also because enemy targets were hiding. They would only come out to attack, where they would be seen by Predators, and then go back to hiding, often before fighter jets could locate them. Commanders posed the question, “How could the Predator be used to help fighter pilots locate targets?” The quick, simple answer was adding a laser-designator to the Predator’s rotating ball which would highlight the target and guide the fighter pilot’s weapon to it. This, in turn, led to the question, “If it can designate a target, couldn’t it also blow it up?” saving precious time from identification to destruction.

The answer to these questions was in Grimes’ hands as the head of Big Safari at the time. Not a card-carrying engineer – Grimes earned a Bachelor of Arts in experimental psychology and a Masters in Business Administration and Management – he nonetheless possessed other talents.

“He had a mind like a steel trap,” said Zimmerman. “When engineers and PhDs would brief him, he would constantly have them [explain it in] plain English and then he would remember that information for years. He could digest what they were saying and knew when it applied and when it didn’t. He would ask, ‘We had this problem 15 years ago. If I took this new thing and mated it to this, would it solve the problem?’ And then people with slide rules and calculators would come and say, ‘Yeah, that’ll work.’”

Grimes’ leadership led to the solution for weaponizing the Predator and transformed air warfare in the process.

“It’s a game changer,” said Zimmerman. “[We have] multiple [improved versions] of remotely piloted aircraft now. We have more of them in oversight positions supporting ground troops. They can be called on at a second’s notice. It’s just revolutionized the whole idea of [air superiority].”

Strength in the air isn’t always about dropping munitions on the right targets. Sometimes, it’s just giving someone a better perspective.

In another story recounted by Zimmerman, it was 2002 during the winter holiday break when an Army Special Operations officer on leave traveled to the Big Safari offices in search of someone to speak to about the Predator. While most of the Big Safari team was on holiday leave, after verifying the officer’s identity, Grimes invited the officer in and listened to his story. The officer explained that his team went into tunnels to find bad guys in Afghanistan. He said that his team had no problems going in and busting down walls but they never knew what was over the next hill. The officer said, “We’re always getting shot at once we cross the hill. We look up and there’s a Predator, so we know somebody sees that image. I wish I could see it.” Grimes said he understood, told the officer to continue on his leave and to stop back by when he was getting ready to return to his unit.

Zimmerman said that Grimes had his team take the air-to-ground data link from Predator – the equipment that sends images from the aircraft down to a ground station for viewing -- and repackaged it into something that resembled a suitcase. The team then hand receipted the equipment to the officer, who then returned to his team.

“That saved their lives,” said Zimmerman. Back in action, as the team was about to enter a compound, the unthinkable was occurring.

“What they didn’t know was that the Taliban knew they were coming and had a Gatling cannon set up behind the wall they were going to breach,” Zimmerman said. “[Looking at the Predator video feed], they saw the ambush being set up. So, they went through another entrance and took down the compound with no U.S. casualties and the objective secured. It was all because Mr. Grimes always said, ‘The war fighter comes first.’”

Today, the Remote Operations Video Enhanced Receiver, or ROVER, is far more advanced, more portable and with greater capabilities to communicate with fighters, bombers and even some helicopters, not only in the Air Force but also in the U.S. Navy. Zimmerman said countless lives have been saved through ROVER’s capabilities and Grimes’ innate refusal to be confined by the conventional.

“Both Predator and ROVER basically changed the way wars are fought,” said Kim High, a colleague of Grimes for more than 20 years and former Tactical Air Control Party officer who would direct air strikes from the ground with ROVER. “Looking at the same image makes it very, very simple. It makes it much more efficient with a lot less collateral damage and it saved a lot of people. Bill Grimes saved thousands of lives with ROVER.”

Buzzwords like rapid capabilities, agile acquisition and expedited fielding may be making their rounds throughout the Air Force now, but they have always been at the heart of Big Safari since its formation in 1952, according to Bob Jackson, Big Safari Special Mission Aircraft branch chief and colleague of Grimes for 20 years. While special tools and authorities for acquisitions like those in use by Big Safari may find their way into other programs, Jackson said Grimes brought something even more important to the mission, especially as Big Safari went through numerous organizational changes throughout the years.

“The key [to quickly get effective tools into warfighters’ hands] is not those special tools and authorities. The key is the attitude and the culture of the people,” Jackson said. “We have honed that to a fine skill and that’s why Big Safari is [as successful as] we are and Bill Grimes is the guy who kept that.”

That culture included making Big Safari more than a place to get a paycheck.

“Bill Grimes led by building an organization that was not only a place to work but ‘family’ to all that worked for him,” said Tammy Collinsworth, a colleague of Grimes for 26 years. “He would support you to the end and go head-to-head with general officers if he thought you were right. He was a believer in his team and that built our trust and courage to go out and do what was right for the warfighter.”

That trust was often reciprocated by those who worked with Grimes.


“He was a father figure. You just didn’t want to let him down,” said High, whose own father left when he was only 10 years old. “First, personally. You didn’t want to fail and you didn’t want him to know you failed. And secondly, he could be a tough old bird!”

This concept of family was held dearly by Zimmerman as well, who lost both of his parents within a two-year timeframe while working with Grimes. He became emotional when talking about what Grimes’ passing meant to him.

“He was always like a second dad to me after my dad passed away,” Zimmerman said. “I could go to him with any personal issue, work issue … anything. His wife and one of his daughters kind of adopted my daughter and really looked after my wife while I was off to weird places during a program where I was gone for 270 days. He was family. I’m going to miss him. I really am.”

As those who knew Bill Grimes mourned his loss, Jackson encouraged all military leaders to learn something from a man who put warfighters first and his people a close second.

“The best thing we can do for him and to honor him is to remember his passion and let his legacy rise back up as something that we see on a daily basis so we can understand and remember why we're here,” Jackson said. “I think he would very much want everybody to feel that way. Not to be sad in his passing but to be blessed and appreciative of what he brought to the table and to continue that. Because more than anything else, as a student of history, and he wrote a lot of history, he sees this organization as having much more in front of it than behind it.”


U.S. Air Force Col.(Ret.) Bill Grimes Leadership Mantras

“Never take no from someone who doesn’t have the authority to say yes”
“It’s amazing what you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit”
“Those who say it can’t be done shouldn’t be getting in the way of those doing it.”