For those who know him well, Mike “Bear” Belardo is just as comfortable flying an Air Force jet at high-altitude as he his coaching youth sports or fishing on a lake or in a stream.
But today, Lt. Col. Michael D. Belardo was joined here by his wife and four children, additional family, friends, and colleagues as he accepted command of the Missouri Air National Guard’s 131st Maintenance Group.
“Lt. Col. Belardo has served the wing well as the 131st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron’s commander. He is an inspirational leader who truly cares for his troops, and those Airmen in AMXS can attest to that,” said 131st Bomb Wing Commander, Col. Kenneth S. Eaves. “I am confident in his ability to lead the group and emulate our Guard culture and family. I look forward to seeing what he does with the 131 MXG.”
Belardo follows Col. Kimbra L. Sterr, who relinquished command during a ceremony here during October drill. Sterr served five years as the MXG commander and moves on to the Pentagon, in Arlington, Virginia, where she will serve as a senior official investigator in the Office of the Inspector General of the Air Force.
“You’re the right officer to lead the group to the next level,” Sterr said of Belardo. “I wish you, Jen, and the boys, the best.”
The 131st MXG helps maintain the B-2 Spirit bomber aircraft in coordination with the wing’s Total Force Initiative partner, the U.S. Air Force’s 509th Bomb Wing. The 131st is the only National Guard unit to provide direct support for Joint Chief of Staff nuclear and conventional bomber taskings.
A command pilot with more than 2,600 flight hours, Belardo began his military journey as a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He earned his degree and commission in 2000.
After graduating, he served more than a decade in the Regular Air Force before transitioning to the Missouri Air National Guard.
“I love the Guard,” Belardo said. “I wish I knew about it sooner. I’m big into team-building, I’m big into family, and I think you get that in the Guard. To me, it’s the best of both worlds. It’s doing an important job, doing an important mission, but at the same time, I don’t have to lay at-wake at night wondering where I’m going to have to PCS (permanent change of station) to or move my kids.”
Since Guard Airmen tend to stay in one location for significant periods of time, contrasted with shorter assignments for active duty personnel, Belardo said members need to find outlets to relieve stress after long stretches.
“Even if it’s just a short walk or drive,” Belardo said. “I love fishing. I don’t take my phone with me. I try to be by myself, even if (I’m) with my kids. I have them go downstream a bit.”
While Belardo may enjoy fishing, one of his long-time friends quipped that his off-duty talents lie elsewhere.
“He’s a below-average fisherman, but an above-average cook,” joked Lt. Col. Ryan Bailey, a traditional Guard B-2 pilot, also in the wing. “He’s a great cook and is always cooking something.”
Bailey said he and his family have spent a lot of time with the Belardos. Bailey said Belardo has also coached their children in youth baseball, basketball and football.
“He was made to coach,” Bailey said. “The saying goes, ‘a pilot is supposed to talk about himself and flying,’ but not Mike Belardo. Even on vacation, he’s talking about maintenance troops and finding ways to make better leaders.”
“You can’t fake that,” Bailey said. “He knows his troops. Whenever I visit him on base, he’s always walking into people and making things better. He’s actively thinking about how to grow you as a person. He identifies that ‘people can do this’ and pushes you early.”
Belardo said he learned the value of a military career from his father, a retired Air Force officer, who found ways to balance career and family, and later coached youth sports as well.
“He went remote when I was five or six, I clearly remember that experience,” Belardo said. “I remember that year being a challenging year in my house. I also remember sitting around the table. My dad would make cassette tapes and would record whatever he had done that week and then he would put it in the mail and it would take two weeks to get to us.”
While they may not have fully appreciated it at the time, Belardo said it is now an important memory for him and his family.
Looking to the challenges ahead, Belardo said his objectives go from tactical to strategic, as he transitions from squadron to group command.
“We’ve had great group commanders,” Belardo said. “Those people have led us to a point. When you look at a guy like (retired Col.) Mark Beck, who was previous to Col. Sterr, he was the guy who said, ‘We need a seat at the table. We’re coming in here, we’re the Guard, where do we sit?’”
The group achieved that, Belardo said. There is now a robust, collaborative relationship with the 509th.
“I think Col. Sterr took that initial lead and brought us to a fully operationally-capable deal, where we can take care of the airplanes.”
Belardo said his goal is to cement the legacy of the group as the foundation of B-2 maintenance, a ready and reliable partner for the wing’s active duty brethren.
“We are the experience on the flight line,” Belardo said. “I’ve got crew chiefs that have worked since ’01. When you talk about that level or experience, that level of knowledge, it’s game-changing for the active duty. They switch out a lot more. They get a guy to his seven-level and he’s typically at a point in his career where he needs to go be an administrator, a leader-type person, doing EPRs (enlisted performance reports), doing awards and decorations, and help manage manning. For us, being the core, the foundation is an important role we need to evolve into.”
He said the ability to understand change is important.
“When I joined the Air Force Academy in 1996, the F-15C (Eagle) was the king airplane, that’s what you wanted to fly,” Belardo said. “The Air Force, technologically speaking, has changed so much, just in the last 10-to-12 years. I think we’ve changed the role intel (intelligence) plays and the way we fight our wars.”
While much has changed since the pre-9/11 military he joined, Belardo said the global strike and deterrence role of the wing’s aircraft remains as relevant as ever.
“Coming to the B-2 is the best decision I’ve ever made,” Belardo said. “I think the B-2 has stayed at the forefront because it’s such an incredible airplane, but we have changed tremendously how we fight our wars.”
Discussing the next generation of Airmen, Belardo said he hopes his 16-year-old son considers service in the Air National Guard, even if it is not for a full 20-year career.
Bailey said he would also like his children to consider Guard service.
“I wish my kids would serve in the Guard and have a commander like Mike Belardo,” Bailey said.
Belardo seems very content with his career and contributions and remains excited about the future.
“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” Belardo said.