Former AFWERX fellow named one of Air Force’s 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. (AFRL) – To be named one of the Air Force’s 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year, one’s accomplishments must stand out amongst the other 260,000 enlisted personnel. The criteria include superior leadership, job performance, community involvement and personal achievements.

Senior Airman Ryan Hospelhorn checked all those boxes and was recognized as one of the 12 outstanding enlisted Airmen at a ceremony during the Air and Space Force Association 2023 Air, Space and Cyber Conference, Sept. 11, 2023. His career in Security Forces spans less than four years, but in that time Hospelhorn earned a Master’s degree in unmanned systems, filled a noncommissioned officer position at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany to launch their small, unmanned aircraft system program and spent four months as an AFWERX fellow.

official photo

Senior Airman Ryan Hospelhorn, 841st Missile Security Forces Squadron flight security controller, Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, was recognized as one of the Air Force’s 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year at the Air and Space Force Association 2023 Air, Space and Cyber Conference, National Harbor, Maryland, Sept. 11, 2023. (Courtesy photo)

“It’s something that’s not on every package, so I definitely think being an AFWERX fellow contributed to me winning this award,” said Hospelhorn.

AFWERX fellowships are designed to cultivate a better understanding of current industry trends, broaden innovation perspectives and expose Airmen and Guardians to programs with Department of the Air Force-level impact. The fellowships include a professional development curriculum, allowing selectees to refine their project management capabilities and expand their skill sets.

group photo

The 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year for 2023 pose in front of the U.S. Capitol building before a tour in Washington, D.C., Sept. 13, 2023. The Airmen were selected based on demonstrated positive leadership, exemplary job performance and personal achievements.

At the encouragement of a former fellow, Hospelhorn applied and began his fellowship in November 2022. Since his educational background and expertise were in unmanned systems, he was tasked with developing the groundwork for the Air Force’s efforts in detecting and defeating drone swarms. A drone swarm refers to a group of drones operating together autonomously to accomplish a specific task.

“Since a threat hasn’t been demonstrated, senior leaders aren’t necessarily as aware of it as they could be,” Hospelhorn stated. “So we worked to put together a demo of what a drone swarm would actually look like along with our abilities or possible inabilities to counter such a threat.”

flight simulation

Senior Airman Ryan Hospelhorn, 52nd Security Forces Squadron small unmanned aircraft systems program manager, pilots a simulated foreign drone during a Paladin drone overview assessment, July 21, 2022, on Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. The Paladin drone is being assessed to become another countermeasure for sUAS here at Spangdahlem. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jessica Sanchez-Chen)

The four-month fellowships are open to members of all ranks currently serving in the Air and Space Forces, Reserve, Guard, and to government civilians. Both full-time and part-time positions are available and are primarily virtual, making them easily accessible regardless of location.

“The cool thing about AFWERX is, it’s rank agnostic. They see you as the person with the brain and not just the rank on your uniform,” Hospelhorn said. “You work in casual clothing and attend web meetings, so it’s a unique side of the Air Force. There’s plenty of travel opportunities, you get to attend conferences, and it’s different than anything else you’re going to do in the Air Force.”

The next four-month fellowship begins in January 2024, and AFWERX will begin accepting applications in November.

“Fellows are selected by AFWERX project managers working real-time innovation initiatives,” said Master Sgt. Craig Buying, AFWERX fellowship director. “There is not a list of credentials required, but demonstrated success to adapt and work well on teams is universal. Innovation does not happen in a vacuum, and the ability to collaborate is essential. During the four months, fellows will gain firsthand experience working active projects at a premier level. Upon returning to their respective units, fellows serve as force multipliers for AFWERX programs around the world.”

shooting range practice

Senior Airman Ryan Hospelhorn, 841st Missile Security Forces Squadron flight security controller, Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, fires a M4 carbine at an indoor shooting range. Hospelhorn was selected as one of 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year for 2023 based on his leadership, job performance and personal achievements. (Courtesy photo)

Hospelhorn completed his fellowship in March and is now stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. He is currently working in nuclear security at the 841st Missile Security Forces Squadron.

“I’m not sure exactly what’s next, but I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of difference I can make,” said Hospelhorn.

To learn more, contact fellowship directors Craig Buying and Jason Newborg at and or visit

About AFRL

The Air Force Research Laboratory is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 12,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit:


As the innovation arm of the DAF and a directorate within the Air Force Research Laboratory, AFWERX brings cutting-edge American ingenuity from small businesses and start-ups to address the most pressing challenges of the DAF. AFWERX employs approximately 325 military, civilian and contractor personnel at six hubs and sites executing an annual $1.4 billion budget. Since 2019, AFWERX has executed 4,671 contracts worth more than $2 billion to strengthen the U.S. defense industrial base and drive faster technology transition to operational capability. For more information, visit: