The enlisted flyer

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. John Grutzmacher
  • 96th Airlift Squadron
Vernon Burge, Maynard Smith, Archibald Mathies, John Levitow, and Chuck Yeager are all famous Air Force figures. What do they all have in common? They were all enlisted flyers. Some of the aforementioned were pilots, gunners, flight engineers and loadmasters, but all were flying sergeants.

One of the first enlisted to fly was Cpl. Vernon Burge. He completed all training requirements and received his pilot certificate from Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) on June 14, 1912 (the governing civilian body of aviation). Corporal Burge was an aircraft mechanic that was trained as a pilot before official approval from the Chief of Signal was gained. By the time Burge's request was denied, he was already a pilot and thus the Chief of Signal reversed his decision. Enlisted airmen continued to be trained as pilots until 1942 with the last enlisted pilot retiring in 1957. Test pilot Brig. Gen. Charles Yeager was in that last 1942 class. In the early years, as aircraft grew larger and more complex enlisted aircrew became a necessity.

Early enlisted aircrew members were mainly flight mechanics (flight engineers) and aerial gunners. As aircraft matured, they and their missions became more specialized and complex which required new specialties like radio operators, flight medics and kickers (loadmasters). Staff Sgts. Maynard Smith and Archibald Mathies received the Medal of Honor for their actions during WWII. Sergeant Smith was a B-17 gunner that saved his crew from a catastrophic fire, aided two seriously wounded airmen, and fought off wave after wave of enemy aircraft. Sergeant Mathies was a flight engineer that was killed when he tried to land his severely damaged bomber after both pilots were wounded. John Levitow received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Vietnam War as an AC-47 loadmaster who saved his crew and aircraft after being hit by a mortar.

Today about three percent of the enlisted force are enlisted aircrew members compared to about twenty percent of officers that are aircrew qualified. Enlisted aircrew members are either Career Enlisted Aviators (CEA) from the Aviation Operations career field (1AXXX) or incumbent/additional duty enlisted aircrew members with an "X" AFSC prefix. Currently 43 AFSCs Air Force wide are eligible to receive the X-prefix for aircrew duties. The 934th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron has Aeromedical Evacuation Technicians (X4N0X1) that provide in-flight patient care on a number of MAF aircraft. The 96th Airlift Squadron and 934th Operations Support Squadron have Flight Engineers (1A1X1) and Aircraft Loadmasters (1A2X1) for the operation of our C-130H3 aircraft.

As aviation technology evolves so have flying duties. In 2009, 1U0X1 AFSC, Unmanned Aerospace System (UAS) Sensor Operator, was established for the operation of unmanned ISR aircraft. Although technically not aircrew members, their duties are similar and just as critical to the operation of the aircraft as enlisted aircrew are in manned systems. The growth of ISR platforms have grown exponentially and as technology changes so will the career field. In 2007, the U.S. Air Force announced the opening of astronaut mission specialist positions to enlisted personnel who met certain eligibility requirements. The enlisted aircrew astronaut badge consists of an enlisted aircrew badge with an astronaut qualifier device placed onto the badge as is the practice of other aviation astronaut badges. While currently authorized, no enlisted astronaut badges have been issued.

The last 109 years of aviation history have seen tremendous advancements with enlisted aircrew members at every step of the way. As long as there are manned air/spacecraft, there will be enlisted crew members continuing to help write the pages of aviation history.

POST SCRIPT: Openings for enlisted aircrew positions currently exist in the 934th Operations Group. Interested individuals should contact the following:
Flight Engineer: Chief Master Sgt. Orin Johnson at 612-713-1725
Loadmaster: Chief Master Sgt. John Grutzmacher at 612-713-1718
Aeromedical Evacuation: Senior Master Sgt. Kevin Cassidy at 612-713-1892