Face of Defense: Airman Serves With First KC-10

JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. — Air­craft 79–0434, the first KC-10 Exten­der deliv­ered to the Air Force, land­ed March 17, 1981, at Barks­dale Air Force Base, La.
At the same time, 400 miles away, a young Air Force trainee endur­ing the rig­ors of basic train­ing was unaware that his career –- and his life –- would be so deeply tied to that air­craft.

The KC-10 is clos­ing in on its 30th year of pro­vid­ing air refu­el­ing and air­lift for U.S. mil­i­tary oper­a­tions around the globe. Few air­men serv­ing today are as con­nect­ed to the KC-10’s his­to­ry as Air Force Senior Mas­ter Sgt. Bill Gross, a crew chief with the 714th Air­craft Main­te­nance Squadron here.

Gross’ career has marched prac­ti­cal­ly in lock­step with the air­craft known by the last three dig­its of its tail num­ber: 434.

“This is a tanker that has served in just about every major mil­i­tary oper­a­tion in the last 20 years,” he said. “I am proud to have been the crew chief on such a his­tor­i­cal and tenured warfight­ing machine.”

Before work­ing on 434, Gross served as an active-duty crew chief on a B‑52 Strato­fortress. Upon com­plet­ing his ini­tial enlist­ment, he left the Air Force and returned to his home­town in the sub­urbs of Chica­go. But he soon real­ized that his home­town had stayed the same, while he had changed.

“After being respon­si­ble for a mul­ti-mil­lion-dol­lar air­craft, going back to a child­hood job seemed like a dead end,” he said.

Know­ing that air­craft main­te­nance was one of his per­son­al strengths, Gross searched for avi­a­tion-relat­ed career oppor­tu­ni­ties. He even­tu­al­ly learned that full-time KC-10 crew chiefs were need­ed in an Air Force Reserve unit at Barks­dale. He got the job and unpacked his Air Force uni­forms for the first time in more than a year.

The unit was bring­ing in a lot of new air­craft main­te­nance per­son­nel, and Gross said he had­n’t real­ly con­sid­ered which air­craft he’d be assigned to.

Gross said his time as an air reserve tech­ni­cian at Barks­dale was spe­cial, both per­son­al­ly and pro­fes­sion­al­ly. Not only did he raise his two chil­dren there, but he also made many strong rela­tion­ships with his fel­low air­men.

Time and dis­tance have made it dif­fi­cult to main­tain many of those rela­tion­ships, he said, but keep­ing in touch with one of his Barks­dale bud­dies is no prob­lem for Gross –- he just turns to his left.

Air Force Chief Mas­ter Sgt. Todd Har­ris shares an office with Gross. The chief said he clear­ly recalls his office mate’s work eth­ic and ded­i­ca­tion when he was a young non­com­mis­sioned offi­cer.

“He took it to anoth­er lev­el,” Har­ris said of Gross. “If you were going to be work­ing on his air­craft, you had bet­ter keep it clean and do prop­er main­te­nance, or believe me, you would hear about it.”

That lev­el of ded­i­ca­tion almost killed Gross.

While work­ing on 434 one day, he was informed of a storm that was quick­ly approach­ing Barks­dale. He had been involved in heavy main­te­nance, and the tanker was opened up, expos­ing some of its crit­i­cal com­po­nents. He could­n’t let 434 face the storm in its cur­rent state. Gross said he rushed to pre­pare the jet, but he took just a lit­tle too long.

“This big ‘boom’ hap­pened, and the next thing I knew, I was in the back of a main­te­nance truck being tak­en to the emer­gency room,” he recalled. Light­ning had struck the air­craft and surged through the crew chief, knock­ing him off his feet.

“Every­one always says that 434 and I are bond­ed for life, because we got struck by light­ning togeth­er,” he said. “It’s not an expe­ri­ence I’d want to relive,” he added.

Gross recount­ed that just as he was reach­ing his prime as a hands-on crew chief in the late 1980s, the KC-10 was reach­ing its prime as an oper­a­tional asset for U.S. mil­i­tary oper­a­tions. Their tim­ing could­n’t have been much bet­ter, because ten­sions were esca­lat­ing in the Per­sian Gulf. The air­man and the air­craft were giv­en an oppor­tu­ni­ty to prove their capa­bil­i­ties in com­bat oper­a­tions.

While much of the acco­lades for the ini­tial stages of Oper­a­tion Desert Shield go to F‑15 fight­er jets, Gross said, the fight­ers, with their lim­it­ed fuel capac­i­ty, could not have been in the fight with­out the sup­port of their tankers.

“How do you think they got there?” he said.

After Iraq’s mil­i­tary had been sub­dued dur­ing Oper­a­tion Desert Storm, the KC-10s con­tin­ued to rotate in and out of the Mid­dle East in sup­port of oper­a­tions North­ern Watch and South­ern Watch. How­ev­er, things were chang­ing back home. The bal­ance of the state­side fleet was leav­ing Barks­dale for loca­tions clos­er to the coasts –- Travis Air Force Base, Calif., and McGuire Air Force Base, N.J.

The reor­ga­ni­za­tion had a sig­nif­i­cant impact on Barks­dale air­men, many of whom were life­long Louisiana res­i­dents. The air­men were giv­en a choice to fol­low the KC-10s to their new bases or remain to work on the B‑52s that were mov­ing to Barks­dale.

“We did­n’t real­ly want to leave,” Gross said. If he stayed at Barks­dale, Gross would be able to use his expe­ri­ence as for­mer B‑52 crew chief.

But he had two impor­tant rea­sons to move to the Gar­den State. Since so many of his fel­low unit mem­bers decid­ed to remain at Barks­dale, a move to McGuire would open many pro­mo­tion oppor­tu­ni­ties with much less expe­ri­enced com­pe­ti­tion. He also had grown attached to his air­plane, he added, and was­n’t ready to bid it farewell.

“It would have been hard,” he said.

On Oct. 1, 1994, air­craft 434 was the first KC-10 to be trans­ferred to McGuire. Gross was part of the crew that flew the tanker to its new home that day.

Air­craft 434 was­n’t the first in every­thing it did. Gross said that in one par­tic­u­lar case, 434 was last. Air Mobil­i­ty Com­mand offi­cials decid­ed the KC-10’s white-top paint scheme would be aban­doned in favor of an all-grey scheme. Gross said he thought 434 was fine as it was, and he did­n’t real­ly sup­port the change.

He kept find­ing good excus­es to keep the tanker out of the paint barn, he said, and the strat­e­gy worked for a lit­tle while, though he knew it was only a mat­ter of time before the painters caught up with him.

“I told them that they might paint it grey,” he said. “But it would have a big, white ‘X’ on top where I would lay while try­ing to stop them.”

They end­ed up paint­ing it while he was on leave, he said.

The KC-10 and its main­te­nance and oper­a­tions per­son­nel con­tin­ued to sup­port ongo­ing oper­a­tions in the Mid­dle East through­out the 1990s, and just as the mil­len­ni­um was about to come to a close, the Balka­ns erupt­ed in vio­lence. Gross and 434 were called upon to serve over­seas again in sup­port of Oper­a­tion Allied Force.

Dur­ing the oper­a­tion, 434 was able to demon­strate its ver­sa­til­i­ty. The air­craft pro­vid­ed aer­i­al refu­el­ing on sev­er­al mis­sions, but also shut­tled refugees from harm’s way in Koso­vo to safe­ty in the Unit­ed States.

As the new mil­len­ni­um arrived, the KC-10’s ser­vices still were in high demand. After the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist attacks, the crew chief and his tanker deployed in sup­port of mul­ti­ple oper­a­tions through­out the Mid­dle East.

Though Gross and 434 had been broth­ers in arms for many years, pro­mo­tions even­tu­al­ly took him away from his role as the tanker’s pri­ma­ry care­tak­er. He became a pro­duc­tion super­in­ten­dent, the shift leader who cruised the flight­line in a pick-up truck while coor­di­nat­ing the all the squadron’s on-air­craft main­te­nance activ­i­ties.

His duties kept him close to the air­craft and to the air­men who replaced him, but he missed doing the job him­self. “My co-work­ers always tell me it’s time to move on,” he said. “But I’m a wrench turn­er at heart.”

Gross said it took some effort to not give spe­cial atten­tion to 434 and to focus on the main­te­nance sta­tus of all of the KC-10s equal­ly. But occa­sion­al­ly, he added, he’d jump out of his truck for a few min­utes to lend a hand and a word of advice to the air­men who were work­ing on his jet.

“He tries very hard to share his knowl­edge and expe­ri­ences with the young air­men and pass on his pride of the KC-10,” Har­ris said. “When he hears main­tain­ers refer­ring to 434 on the radio, he often chimes in with a some­times-uncon­ven­tion­al sug­ges­tion that reflects one of the aircraft’s quirks.”

The next pro­mo­tion took Gross away from 434 and the flight­line and into his cur­rent posi­tion as a desk-bound flight chief. Ini­tial­ly, he acknowl­edged, the new job was tough because he no longer worked on air­craft –- he worked on air­men. He did­n’t start to feel com­fort­able in the flight chief posi­tion, he said, until he was advised to think of per­son­nel and admin­is­tra­tive issues like air­craft main­te­nance issues.

Gross since has warmed to his posi­tion as flight chief, but Har­ris said he knows his old friend would trade in his key­board for a wrench in a heart­beat.

“To this day, 434 is the No. 1 thing on his mind,” the chief said. “When any­one men­tions 434, his ears perk up.”

Gross does­n’t deny the chief’s descrip­tion. “I still have a per­son­al ded­i­ca­tion to the air­craft,” he said.

Air­craft 434, like most KC-10s, is pro­ject­ed to serve through 2043. Gross, how­ev­er, has just a few years of ser­vice left before reach­ing his manda­to­ry retire­ment date.

“There will nev­er be anoth­er KC-10 crew chief who takes more pride in his air­craft than Sergeant Gross,” Har­ris said. “It will be a sad day for the Air Force and the KC-10 when he final­ly hangs up his uni­form for the last time.”

Gross acknowl­edges his con­nec­tion to 434, but insists that many oth­er air­men have helped to keep the tanker in a mis­sion-ready state through its 30 years of ser­vice.

“That air­craft has a lot of his­to­ry,” he said. “A lot of peo­ple have worked on it and bled on it.”

Though the next gen­er­a­tion of air­men will con­tin­ue to work on 434, none will be able to claim a career that was so deeply linked to one air­plane like Gross.

“One day, I hope to take my grand­chil­dren to a muse­um or a base where they will even­tu­al­ly retire 434 upon a block of con­crete, ded­i­cat­ing it for­ev­er as the first KC-10 deliv­ered to the Air Force,” he said. “And maybe, just maybe, some his­to­ri­an will put my name in the crew chief block, and I can say to them that I was the crew chief for that air­plane.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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