COLORADO SPRINGS (AP) – Chief Master Sgt. David Carey dealt with the age jokes for a couple of decades. Colleagues would ask him about flying over Europe in World War II, and whether he got along with the Wright brothers.
It came with the territory for Carey, who until retiring recently was the most senior flight crewman in the Pikes Peak region. The 302nd Airlift Wing flight engineer began his Air Force career when Jimmy Carter was in the White House.
“Kids in the squadron weren’t born then,” Carey said at Peterson Air Force Base.
Senior Airman Courtney Fields, who’s been at Peterson just a few months, said Carey isn’t like the other, gruffer, senior sergeants. He’s a patient father figure. “He teaches me,” the 20-year-old said.
Carey has learned much during 38 years in uniform. He’s been aboard the wing’s C-130 transport planes during dangerous missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s also the wing’s most senior aerial firefighter.
He recalls a fireball from a blaze in California that stalled out two of his C-130’s four turbine engines during a low pass to drop retardant.
“That’s the only time I’ve ever kissed the ground” upon landing, the 56-year-old father of three said.
Carey started as a crew chief for a B-52 bomber before coming to Colorado Springs in the early 1980s. The 302nd had no openings for crew chiefs, so Carey was put in the cockpit as a flight engineer.
In the air, engineers coax power out of the planes with instincts that are part mechanic and part psychic. Flight engineers sit in front of an array of gauges and switches that control the aircraft. Carey knows each piece by heart, and over and over again he kept the planes in easy trim with the engines thrumming.
Carey, who was a full-time air reserve technician in a wing mainly composed of part-time troops who serve on weekends, spent more than 9,500 hours in the cockpit. Not one crash.
He flew missions to quell the Hayman Fire in 2002, Waldo Canyon in 2012 and Black Forest in 2013. Battling those blazes so close to home was special, the chief said.
Most of his 4,367 flights in the C-130 weren’t memorable. Hauling passengers, cargo and paratroopers for the Air Force is more long-haul trucking than air shows and battlefields.
He remembers taking troops for their last flight, though, when he was deployed to the Middle East. “Those coffins that are flag-draped – you don’t forget that,” he said.
Carey said he made it through the decades in uniform with a mantra that he has passed down to younger airmen. “I tell them to take ownership of your job and your responsibilities,” Carey said. “If you don’t like it, learn to like it. This is bigger than life.”
But flight comes with an expiration date in the military. Carey said the maximum age to hold his job is 55. He recently turned 56.
Don’t feel sorry for the chief. He’s got plans. He’ll spend time with a family that was often separated from him when duty called.
He’s looking forward to fixing boats in his post-Air Force job, but he put off that future for a few more hours on Aug. 23.
For the 4,368th time, he climbed into the C-130 cockpit. His fingers danced over switches as his eyes scanned the gauges. One last hop up to Wyoming was planned.
“Today is the last day,” the chief said before taking off on his final flight. “It’s bittersweet.”