Through Airmen's Eyes: Better than owning a racecar
KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- Two figures casually, yet confidently, walk to their flightline parking spot, awaiting the arrival of their aircraft. The screams of an F-16 Fighting Falcon approach. Both Airmen exchange a glance and flow into the motions of parking the jet.
It almost looks like a dance.
"It's like we know exactly what to do and how to communicate without saying a word," said Master Sgt. David Custer. "That's the bonus that comes with working with the same team for so many years."
As a lead crew chief in the Vermont National Guard's 158th Maintenance Squadron, Custer has a unique relationship with his teammates rarely found among his active duty counterparts. While an active duty Airman moves from one assignment to the next within just a few years, Custer stayed with his ANG unit for what he calls the 'long haul,' permitting him the privilege of bonding and growing with his unit for an exceptionally long time.
"A buddy and I have been working side-by-side for 11 years, which is actually pretty common for us," Custer said. "It's pretty neat in that aspect."
Custer wasn't always a guardsman; he originally enlisted as active duty in 1999. When searching for a career path, he heard that crew chiefs get to be in charge of their own jet, which sounded very appealing. Since that day, Custer committed to his new role in full throttle and hasn't looked back.
In 2003, Custer transitioned to the Guard side of the Air Force. He enjoyed it, but a part time role simply wasn't enough for his nature. The next year he found a full time position with the 158th Air National Guard of Vermont, which he holds to this day.
Custer found no lack of excitement working full time. He is currently on his seventh deployment here at Kadena, aiding a theater security package and projecting mobility and power throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific Region. To this day he can't recall how many TDYs he has embarked on.
Not only has the Air Guard provided him an avenue to create a career full of memories with the same unit over the last decade, it's given him ample time to get to know his livelihood - his aircraft.
"Each jet has its own personality with its crew chief," said Custer. "When you get to know your jet so well, it gets personal. I will tell people to step away from my jet if people aren't taking care of it."
Having a sense of ownership is not unusual for dedicated crew chiefs like Custer. His own trainee, Senior Airman Charles Thurston, said that he's the kind of person who will look you straight in the eye and say, "that aircraft -- it's mine," and seriously mean it. After all, his name is printed boldly on the jet's side.
After experiencing both the active duty and guard sides of the Air Force, Custer realized that the efforts and sacrifices put into his career field are the same for crew chiefs across the board.
"I wish people knew about the heartache it takes to be a crew chief," he said. "We have the most cutthroat jobs working out here on our jets from sunup to sundown. We know we don't always get recognized for our work, but at the end of the day we just shrug it off because we know that we make jets fly, and that's what the Air Force's mission is."
With so many years of experience under his belt, keeping his aircraft in top shape is only one of his major responsibilities. He must also set a positive example for rising crew chiefs under his leadership and set standards for the next generation of Airmen.
"He makes me want to strive to that level of mastery," Thurston said. "Whenever there's a problem with the aircraft, he's usually one of the first people I go to when looking for help. That's the kind of position I'd like to see myself in someday."
Custer and his 158th teammates put plenty of sweat, long hours and mental energy into maintaining their F-16s in different climates around the globe, but it's always a means to something greater. Their work makes it possible for ANG fighters to train alongside with active duty aircraft, providing air support to where it's needed.
"It really is the coolest thing," said Custer. "It's better than owning a racecar. Yeah, my work can be a frustrating sometimes, but when you take pride in it and ownership in it, I can definitely say it's the most rewarding thing I've done in my life."