It’s more than a name

  • Published
  • By Col. Jay Johnson
  • 403rd Maintenance Group

I was 20 years old, just finished two years of college education and had no clue where to turn next in my life. 


I stopped in a strip mall in a small Southeast Texas town to visit a very unpopular person during the late ‘70s -- my Air Force recruiter. It’s funny, I still remember his name, Tech. Sgt. Satchell.  I’m sure I was a sight with my long blond hair entering his office during the post-Vietnam era interested in his Air Force. I was in possession of my recent Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test results that would qualify me for many Air Force jobs. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was more interested in me than I was in him.


As he poured through the numerous jobs being offered, I was quickly confused by this new vocabulary and all the grandiose job titles. I didn’t want to confess it at the time, but he was actually losing me. I began to look through the mountain of Airman Magazines scattered throughout his office, and I locked into a particular picture of an Airman standing next to a plane.  It struck me because the feature article was about a crew chief and that particular cover displayed him posing next to the plane with his name on it. I remember reading about the Airman and feeling the pride he had in his job and the honor of having his name on the side of that airplane. 


It was his signature.


In that moment I knew I had to become one of these flight line warriors. I had no hesitation, and I didn’t consider the possibility of going into harm’s way. I wanted the pride and ownership that comes with being a maintainer and to see my name on the side of a plane along with the words U.S. Air Force.


My first duty assignment was Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. I immediately realized that aircraft maintenance wasn’t as sexy a job as I had originally thought sitting in Tech. Sgt. Satchell’s office looking at magazines filled with shiny planes, pressed uniforms and glamourous weapons of war. I hadn’t traveled too far geographically for my new career, just to the other side of the state. I started to realize through early training and working on the line that the C-130 was the workhorse of the Air Force. They used our planes around the globe and always deployed at a moment’s notice, travelling in less than glamorous style.


I experienced what most new Airmen growing up through the ranks do – that appearances aren’t always close to reality. There were long workdays, being assigned to the “pig” of the fleet, wash rack duty, short-notice deployments, unrealistic deadlines, inspections and frustrating supervision were my new found reality. I volunteered to work every aspect I could on the line in order to learn more about the profession I had chosen and to one day earn the right to have my name in small 1.5 inch letters above the crew entrance door. I wanted all who saw that plane to know who maintained it. It would be my personal symbol of pride and representation of my new found abilities and skills. 


In life there are many changes, experiences and curveballs. We have the option to hit or catch. I wanted to continue my college education in order to compete in the civilian market once this military gig was over, or at least make it known I wanted to be commissioned as an officer who would fully understand what it’s like to launch, recover and maintain an aircraft.


There were a few road blocks I hit along the way. In order to accommodate my college desire, I requested to work in the Isochronal Inspection Dock as the coordinator. That was my last position held with the 463rd Organizational Maintenance Squadron. I learned a great deal about the aircraft, people, priorities and a few life lessons during those years.


Mostly, I understood how important the job of a maintainer is in the structure of the Air Force.


A great deal of trust is given to the integrity of each maintainer. It’s almost beyond measure. Even maintainers have to put a great deal of trust in their teammates and check their own work each day. I had trainers who became lifelong friends, and we are still in touch to this day. Trust is more than just a word to a maintainer. It has to become a part of their daily routine. 


Trust is the key behind successful aircraft maintenance and a great team. Life will throw a few roadblocks in the way of your plans, but focus your sight on your goals and never lose faith that your doors will open. If you can picture your way ahead and stay the course, your dreams will become reality.


I now know even more how important those small letters above the crew door are. They are far more immense than a name on a plane.