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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