TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Generations of mobility aircraft maintainers from across the country gathered at Travis Air Force Base Sept. 20-21, to share their wisdom and experiences with two dozen active-duty maintenance Airmen.
More than 100 former Air Force maintainers shared a wealth of maintenance knowledge having worked on the C-141 Starlifter — the predecessor to the C-17 Globemaster III — the C-5 Galaxy and other aircraft. These maintainers are part of Travis’ 76-year history and worked in either the 60th Organizational Maintenance Squadron, now known as the 60th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, or the 602nd Aircraft Generation Squadron, which deactivated in 1997.
Retired Master Sgt. Robert Ketterer, a former C-5 production superintendent and the lead organizer of the event, said he wanted the past to meet the present.
“I want this to be a passing of the torch from the old maintainers to the new maintainers,” Ketterer said.
Many of the stories told revolved around lessons learned from mishaps such as the 1993 C-141 fire at Travis AFB. According to reports, a lack of communication and task saturation may have been a contributing factor. Incidents like this ultimately led to the institution of a mandatory class, now called Human Factors Training, which focuses on reducing risk in maintenance practices.
“I think some of the ‘near misses’ (and mishaps) we heard about in the stories this weekend definitely shifted the maintenance culture to be more focused on compliance and safety,” said Maj. Justin Hickey, 60th AMXS commander. “These former maintainers established the undeniable pride and grit that is unique to aircraft maintenance even today.”
While many of the stories shared were maintenance-specific, the overarching message the maintainers of yesterday expressed was one of encouragement and appreciation.
“It’s not about you; it’s the team that makes it happen,” said retired Master Sgt. Jerry Demele, former C-5 flying crew chief.
Demele stressed the importance of teamwork in getting the mission done and encouraged each Airman to find joy in supporting the mission, because their time in the Air Force is limited.
“I hope that the level of camaraderie and Air Force family we witnessed during this reunion will inspire our newest generation to build stronger relationships in the workplace,” said Hickey. “Our young maintainers have the most intelligence and best attitudes I’ve seen in my career.”
Senior Airman Shelby Yellowhair, a 60th AMXS communication and navigation systems technician and an aspiring flying crew chief, said she was excited for the opportunity to meet with and learn from former maintainers.
“I love how close knit they are,” Yellowhair said. “They reminded me to live my best life and enjoy being on the line because time is going to fly by.”
Ketterer’s intent for the reunion was to allow maintainers of the past to share their experiences while learning how aircraft maintenance is performed today. The former maintainers asked several questions about modern-day maintenance practices, why today’s Airmen joined the Air Force and how much an airman first class earns.
One major difference discovered during the gathering between the maintainers was operational tempo, Ketterer said.
“On a typical day, we would launch three or four aircraft for missions to Hickam, then we would launch out two training sorties, recover them and launch them back out,” said Ketterer.
During that time, Travis AFB used to be home to 36 C-5s with more than 600 Airmen to maintain them. Now, the 60th AMXS has just over 350 Airmen responsible for 18 C-5s. A typical day for current maintainers consists of one or two mission launches and two training sortie launches.
Despite the reduction in manpower and aircraft, and with the constant demand of rapid global mobility, maintainers at Travis AFB have to be ready at a moment’s notice to project American power.
Ketterer, a Pennsylvania resident, spent nine months planning the reunion. He learned how to use e-mail, create a Facebook group and even make memes. He only expected 15-20 maintainers to show up. The Facebook group quickly grew to more than 500 members and several dozen made it to the event.
Ketterer said, that while he organized the reunion, it took teamwork to make it happen and credits retired Tech. Sgt. Mark Hamilton, a Vacaville, California, resident and retired Master Sgt. Jerry Horton, former C-5 crew chief and quality assurance inspector, with much of the reunion’s success.
Horton said he was Ketterer’s sounding board and that he and his wife, Patty, helped Ketterer put his ideas into play.
“I couldn’t have done it without my team,” said Ketterer. “Mark worked closely with the 60th Maintenance Group to make this event happen and Jerry handled the catering, money and program design.”
Hamilton said, while he may have had a role in the reunion’s success, he was thankful to 60th MXG leadership for their support.
“I am very grateful for Col. David Hammerschmidt, 60th MXG commander, and his staff for letting us do this,” said Hamilton. “The value of us being able to pass our experience on is unmeasurable.”
Ketterer said he’s hopeful for an even bigger reunion in the next couple of years.
“If we make a big enough splash this time, maybe next time, we can get even more people to attend and share their experiences.”