Aim High – My USAF Career

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While I signed my enlistment paperwork in April of 1989, I didn’t enter my enlistment until 21 September 1989. I separated with an Honorable Discharge on 06 December 1998. I held the rank of Staff Sergeant at the time of my separation.

But before I enlisted, I applied for Officer Training School twice. I wanted to be a fighter pilot. Each application met two review boards. So that’s four total review boards. I was passed over all four times. The worst part was not knowing why. They don’t tell you. They only tell you yes or no.

lackland afb photoSo, after the fourth denial, I chose to enlist. First stop, Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas for Basic Training. Basic Training is much like you would expect. Instructors yell a lot. You’re taught how to wear the uniform, drill and ceremony, to follow orders without question, to do everything, including folding your clothes, with precision, Air Force history and more. There were guys who thought they were better than everyone else. Then there’s Private Pyle (Full Metal Jacket), the guy that can’t seem to do anything properly and needs help to do the simplest of things. We had one too. I think his last name was Earp (I have no idea if he’s somehow related to Wyatt), but guys helped him out. A couple fell back during the flight run to encourage and push him to finish. If he hadn’t had made time, the entire flight would have failed. All for one and one for all. My flight was named an Honor Flight, which is something every flight strives for; at least I think they would. I was awarded with the BMTS Honor Graduate award. Since I had a college degree, I was automatically given the rank of Airman First Class upon graduation.

lowry afb photoNext stop, Lowry AFB in Denver, CO (actually Aurora) for Technical Training. I was give the career, Aircraft Armament System Specialist. The easy way to describe the job is loading bombs, bullets and missiles on fighter and bomber aircraft. It’s a bit more than that, as the loading part is really only half the job. The other half is working in a shop maintaining and repairing bomb racks, missile launchers and cannons (aircraft guns). My technical training was on the F-16 Fighting Falcon, but I could be assigned to any fighter or bomber squadron. Most of the training was loading weapons on the F-16 aircraft. Since it was winter, I took the opportunity to go skiing in the Rocky Mountains a few times on weekends: Breckenridge, Vail, Loveland and maybe a couple of other places. I met three people in Tech School Brian, Amado and John, with whom I still keep in touch through Facebook. John and Amado retired from the USAF in 2013. Brian also retired from the USAF but I’m not sure what year.

homestead afb photoUpon graduating Technical School, it was off to my first duty station, Homestead AFB in Homestead, Florida, which is just south of Miami, Florida. I arrived in March 1990. I was assigned to the weapons shop repairing and maintaining a variety of bomb racks, missile launchers, 20mm cannons (guns). During exercises, I had two assignments. During the deployment phase of an exercise, I was assigned to help load cargo on transport aircraft such as C130s, C141s and C5s. During exercises, we faked it, placing equipment between lines simulating an aircraft’s cargo bay. But during Desert Shield/Desert Storm, we loaded equipment bound for the Middle East on actual aircraft. During the “war” phase of exercises, I was usually assigned to End of Runway (EOR) duties, chocking tires, pulling/inserting fuel tank and weapons rack safety pins and making sure there aren’t any panel doors left open; pretty simple stuff. I enjoyed this change of pace assignment. Between launches and/or recoveries we played cards, usually spades, listened to the radio and watched television. During off time, my roommate, Ed, and I would hang out. We got along pretty well. We liked the same kind of music. We weren’t into the club scene so we could usually be found in the dorm’s TV room on Saturday nights watching MTV’s Headbangers Ball. I really enjoyed my time at Homestead AFB and made some good friends: Ed, Lori, Irish, Kenny, Travis, and a few others. I spent 18 months in South Florida and absolutely love it there. I received orders for a new duty station in July 1991 to report in September. Not long before I left Homestead AFB, I was promoted to Senior Airman. Once I left Homestead AFB, I never worked in a weapons shop again.

Spangdahlem AB TowerAfter a month of leave at home in California, I was off to my next duty station at Spangdahlem AB in Spangdahlem, Germany. At Spangdahlem AB, I was assigned to one of the F-16 fighter squadrons. This was my first flightline assignment, loading weapons on aircraft. My flight to and arrival in Germany was an adventure in itself. I flew out of Ontario, California about midnight, arriving in Charleston, South Carolina about 7 AM. My flight to Frankfort, Germany was scheduled for about 11 AM. Mind you, back then, on duty military personnel were required to travel in dress uniforms, which aren’t always the most comfortable to wear. The charter plane had mechanical difficulties, which took a significant amount of time to repair. As such, the flight didn’t take off until 3 or 4 PM. Although it was an overnight flight, for once, I was unable to sleep during the flight. That might have been partially due to families with kids and babies also on the flight. I arrived in Frankfort, Germany about 1 PM the next day. By that time, the White Swan, a bus that travels to various bases, had already left so I had no way to get to Spangdahlem AB, which is about a two and a half hour drive from Frankfurt. I called my duty station to find out if they could send someone to pick me up. They said someone would be there to pick me up, but he couldn’t leave until his shift ended at 4 PM. Sigh. More waiting, not in the terminal or any of the small trailer offices, but outside on the sidewalk. I found a restroom and changed into civilian clothes and waited until my ride arrived at about 7:30 PM. I arrived on base about 10:00 PM. I went to the dorm manager and he proceeded to talk to me about dorm rules and such. I politely stopped him, explained to him about my extremely long day, asked for my room key and bedding and promised to come see him in the morning, which I did.

My job on the weapons crew was the 3-man. The 3-man’s job is inspect all munitions and prepare them, if necessary, for loading and drive the lift truck to load all of the munitions, except AIM-9 missiles and small practice bombs, which are loaded by hand. John, whom I knew from Basic Training, was the 2-man. The 2-man’s responsibilities are to prepare all bomb racks and missile launchers for loading, maintain the crew tool box and account for all tools after each job.

F-16 at Incirlik AB, TurkeyIn April 1992, I was sent on my first deployment. It was to Incirlik AB, Turkey in support of Operation Provide Comfort, which was to enforce the No Fly Zone over northern Iraq. My crew chief, Ed, didn’t go on this deployment. I think it was because he was coming up on his tenure and had to take his promotion tests on schedule. He was in his 10th year and had not made Staff Sergeant yet. Back then, if you didn’t make Staff Sergeant within 10 years, you were automatically separated. Turns out, he didn’t get high enough scores and was separated in the summer of 1992. Dean was our crew chief for the deployment and I think he stayed our crew chief after we returned. I liked Dean as my crew chief a lot more than Ed. Aircraft flew with live munitions, but for the most part the job was pretty easy. Pilots didn’t fire weapons unless absolutely necessary. In all the trips there, I only recall a jet firing a missile once. Most of the time, we would have to unload a jet so it could go back to Spangdahlem for maintenance and load its replacement upon arrival.

During my first deployment, we were there because another unit (from Ramstein AB) wanted to conduct training at a range in Konya, Turkey. Our jets were there to take the place of the other unit’s jets participating in that training. They asked for volunteers to be a range spotter for a week, so I did. A captain from the other unit and I were driven to Konya. Twice a day we went to the range. I would spot the bomb dropped on the range through a scope and call out the measurement. Someone else in a different tower would call in their measurement. By triangulation, the range operator determined distance from the target and the range officer (the captain from Ramstein AB) radioed the result to the pilots. Easy work, but a really cool experience. The range operator (wish I could remember his name) showed us around Konya. One day he took us to lunch at this restaurant he called The Hole in the Wall. It literally was just that. You’d never find it unless you knew it was there. We walked down a small side street, turning into a walled courtyard with various shops and restaurants. At one of the corners in the courtyard there was a “tunnel” at the end of this “tunnel” was the restaurant. Really good, authentic Turkish food. But, like I said, you’d never be able to find it without a guide.

Living quarters were in tent city at one end of the runway. Working nights was great, except in the mornings. Jets took off early and they are loud. I learned to sleep with earplugs really quick. I spent a lot of my spare time studying. I was originally scheduled to take my promotion tests in April, but because I was deployed, they were postponed until I returned to Spangdahlem. Most days after my shift, I’d head over to the food court, get some food and study for three or four hours. Then I’d head back to tent city, grab a shower, maybe get a beer or two and play a couple games of darts at one of the tent city hooch bars, and call it a night. All this studying paid off. When I got back to Spangdahlem in the middle of July, I scheduled my test for the beginning of August, continuing my studies until my test date. I scored well and got a line number for Staff Sergeant the first year I was eligible. Because I didn’t have much time in service or time in grade, I had to wait a year before I could tack on my SSGT stripes. It didn’t matter to my shop chief though. As soon as I received my line number, he gave me a crew of my own. I was given two new guys right out of technical school. So while I was learning my new role as a weapons crew chief, I was also training these two young guys, Matt and Mike, how to do their jobs at the same time. It wasn’t easy and I’m sure we all made mistakes. But eventually the three of us became a good team. I lost count of the number of times I was deployed to Turkey, but I know I was there several times. Three or four sounds about right, though it could have been more than that. I suppose I could look it up my military records and find out for sure.

Incirlik, TurkeyIncirlik was (I say was because I don’t know what it’s like now) a small town (probably still is), located near Adana, Turkey and the Mediterranean Sea. People were generally friendly, shopping plentiful and prices cheap. Throughout my deployments I bought a couple of leather jackets, a couple of tailor made suits from fabric I chose, a couple of carpets, a custom made cedar chest, our original gold wedding bands, gold cartouches and necklaces for gifts and various decorations and other things. While the conditions weren’t always the best at Incirlik AB and it got dull after several trips, they were good deployments and the extra money was excellent.

Aviano AB, ItalyMy favorite deployment while stationed at Spangdahlem AB was to Aviano AB, Italy. It’s situated in northeastern Italy and the scenery is breathtaking with its views of the Dolomites and Italian Alps. I was deployed there in support of Operation Deny Flight, which enforced a no fly zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina. As with everything, there were some things about the deployment that sucked, but the pros far outweighed the cons. We stayed in a small town, Pordenonne, about 20 miles south of the base. Few people spoke English, so I quickly learned enough Italian to order food and shop. Ah, I miss the authentic Italian food and the street market on weekends. Pordenonne is also a 30 minute train ride north of Venice, Italy. On one of our few days off, a friend and I took the train down to Venice and spent the day sightseeing, drinking capuccinos, eating and a little shopping.

I was deployed to several other places while stationed at Spangdahlem AB: Denmark, Soesterberg AB (Netherlands), Belgium, Nevatim AB (Israel), Tyndall AFB (Panama City, FL) for live missile fire training and Nellis AFB (Las Vegas, NV) for Red Flag. The deployment to Denmark wasn’t all that great. It was cold and windy the whole time we were there, but we did go to the original Legoland, which was pretty cool. The Israel deployment wasn’t all that great either. Quarters were small trailers and six people were squeezed into those small quarters. Same meal every day (bland breaded chicken with rice or fries and a barely flavored koolaid type drink). Israeli beer, at least the kind we had available (Maccabee), isn’t that good. But the side trips to Masada, The Dead Sea, Jerusalem and Bethlehem were awesome.

In early 1996, I decided to apply for Officer Training School one last time. I got good letters of recommendation from my shop chief, the squadron commander, the group commander, the base commander and the numbered AF commander (which is just one step down from the USAFE commander). I had a little bit of community service on record from leadership school, excellent performance evaluations, and as I learned, good test scores. Yet, I was denied two more times, for a total of six denials. I wasn’t applying for pilot duty this time, so I was really disappointed and a little angry that I wasn’t selected.

USAF ThunderbirdsThe last stop of my United States Air Force career was Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, NV, home of the USAF Thunderbirds. I arrived in June 1996 and was stationed there until I separated on 06 December 1998. My unit was part of the USAF Weapons School. The school trains pilots in advanced weapons and tactics enforcement. Each course is approximately 6 months long. Pilots spend a lot of time in the classroom as well as in the air. The first three months are primarily air-to-air combat tactics. For a weapons loader, this is the easy part of the course as the aircraft are configured for air-to-air combat; missiles only. The second half of the course concentrates on air-to-ground combat training. This is where us weapons loaders earn our pay. We have to load 10+ jets with bombs and/or air-to-ground missiles, such as the AGM-65 Maverick and the AGM-88 (HARM) in about 3 hours between scheduled flights each day.

I knew when I arrived at Nellis AFB, that it was highly unlikely that I was going to re-enlist. Why? I applied to Officer Training School 3 times and was turned down by all 6 review boards. That was the career path I wanted to go down and the USAF denied me the opportunity. I was pretty upset when I was denied the last time. If I could have cross-trained into a different career field, I would have stayed in, but the weapons career field was undermanned and the USAF wasn’t allowing anyone to cross-train out of it. Since I couldn’t get into Officer Training School and could get out of the weapons career field (I suppose I could have applied for Basic Training Instructor or Recruiter, but those jobs didn’t appeal to me), I decided to get my MBA, 75% of which was paid by the USAF. I finished my last course in mid-November 1998, about 3 weeks before I voluntarily separated. The USAF got no benefit from my advanced degree.

USAF Career Highlights

During the 9 years and (almost) 3 months of my United States Air Force career, I was fortunate to experience some pretty cool things and see some awesome places. I was deployed to Incirlik AB, Turkey several times for Operation Provide Comfort. During my first deployment, I was able to get an incentive ride on a KC-135 Stratotanker on an in-flight refueling mission over Iraq. I saw Saddam Hussein’s summer palace from a distance (there wasn’t much to see at that distance) and sit in the cockpit during landing. I was also able to watch the boom operator refuel several aircraft in-flight. Here are several photos of what in-flight refueling looks like from the boom operator’s perspective:

On my second deployment to Incirlik AB, Turkey, I was given an incentive ride in the back seat of an F-16 Fighting Falcon. Since I worked on the flight line, I sometimes had the opportunity to talk with pilots. One pilot told me that he considered it his job to make the passenger of an incentive ride puke; if the passenger didn’t puke, he didn’t do his job. Well, on my incentive ride, I didn’t, but not because the pilot didn’t try, but because I didn’t eat breakfast before my flight. So I didn’t have anything in my stomach to throw up, though I did have a couple of dry heaves. Upon take off, the pilot sent us straight up to about 20,000 feet, at which point we inverted then rolled over to fly level (Immelman maneuver). That “turn” from horizontal to vertical is about 5.5 Gs. We flew through some canyons, buzzed a fishing boat on the Mediterranean Sea and went supersonic. Yep, I broke the sound barrier! My pilot told me how to perform an aileron roll and the Immelman maneuver, which is a half loop with a half aileron roll at the top of the loop, then gave me flight control. I did the aileron roll and Immelman maneuver without a hitch. It was so cool! Once the wing tanks emptied we did a turn to try and reach 9 Gs. We got close, 8.9 Gs, but it didn’t get me a 9 G pin. Bummer. But, it was the best roller coaster ride I’ve ever been on. I experienced grey vision (dimmed or tunnel vision) during some of the high G turns, but never blacked out. No photos, sorry.

While stationed at Nellis AFB, I once again was given newly trained airmen for my weapons crew. At least now I was a seasoned, experienced weapons crew chief. My crews at Nellis were probably the best crews I ever had. My 3-man, Dave, was an excellent lift truck driver. While, I have no expectations that it still stands, my crew set the Integrated Combat Turnaround (ICT) load time record at about 20 minutes. The load was 2 AIM-120 missiles, 2 AIM-9 missiles, 60 chaff, 30 flares and 510 rounds of 20mm ammo. We had 0 (zero) discrepancies for the load. Because of that load, my crew was given the opportunity to perform a static ICT for War College dignitaries (that is, lots of brass). Definitely an honor to be given that assignment. I couldn’t find a video of an F-16 ICT, but here’s one that was done on an A-10.

I am proud of my service in the United States Air Force. The Air Force gave me a good job and the opportunity to travel. I got to see some really interesting places that I wouldn’t have otherwise visited or even thought about visiting. When I enlisted in the United States Air Force, I fully intended to make a career of it, but circumstances changed and converged and I decided that it was best for me and my wife if I exited the military after 9+ years and rejoined the civilian society. While I’m sure the monthly retirement paycheck and benefits would be helpful, I don’t regret separating early and not sticking it out 11 more years to retirement.

FINAL NOTE: The featured photo (shown below) is of a weapons crew loading an AIM-120 missile (AAMRAM) on station 1 (left wingtip) of an F-16 Fighting Falcon. The person on the lift truck is the 3-man, which was my first position on a weapons crew when I was assigned to flight line duty. The person standing is the weapons crew chief, which is the position I was given when I received a line number for SSGT.

Loading an AAMRAM (AIM-120)

Photo by DVIDSHUB

Photo by jkonrath

Photo by rjones0856

Photo by San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives

Photo by San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives

Photo by San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives

Photo by San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives

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