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20 Years In The Helicopter Business (Jim Burns)


When I joined up in Kansas City, MO on 6 June 1959, I had my mind set (and the recruiter patted me on the head and said “no sweat”) that I wanted to be a jet fighter mechanic.


So off I go, with several others on our train ride to Lackland for basic training. After four or five weeks (can’t remember how long, now) at Lackland, I get orders to report to Sheppard AFB, TX, and I knew that the jet fighter mechanic school was at Sheppard … looking good so far.


I still had to complete basic training, so while I was waiting for my school assignment I spent half a day doing basic training and the other half on detail, yard cleaning, k.p., etc. Every day I’d check the bulletin board for my school assignment and after a week or two …. There was my name on the board with my school assignment to helicopter mechanics school!!! Now wait just a minute here … I signed up to be a JET PLANE mechanic …. What the hell is this helicopter mechanic school thing??


As you all might imagine, my ‘slick’ sleeve didn’t have much pull and I was told that I was to report to the helicopter mechanics school as posted … the jet fighter school slots were full.


I was really heart broken and discouraged, however not wanting to spend any more time on details or worse yet … in the brig, I dutifully marched off to my first day of helicopter school as ordered … damn, I didn’t like it but I didn’t have much choice.


Some where along about the second or third week, our instructor started telling us a little about what we might expect when we got to our first permanent duty assignments. In his little talk he said something to the effect of “and when you get to your assignments, you might get to be on flying status as a crew chief”. Hummmmm, now I never thought about getting to fly! Those two words “flying status” created a complete change of attitude in me and now I was determined to finish tech. school and get onto my first assignment and work toward my goal of getting on flying status.


In tech. school we were training on H-19’s & H-21’s and I was quickly partial to the H-19 and didn’t care for the H-21’s at all. As we were getting close to finishing school our permanent assignments started coming in and every one in the two classes in front of mine got assignments to H-21 units. I was discouraged about that and resolved myself to the fact that our class would receive similar H-21 assignments.


When our assignments came in everyone in my class except me and two other’s received H-21 assignments. One of the guys went to an H-19 unit at Niagara Falls, N.Y. and I think the other went to an H-19 outfit at K.I. Sawyer and I was assigned to H-19’s at Suffolk County AFB, LI, N.Y. Wasn’t thrilled about N.Y., but was tickled about going to H-19’s. By the way about a year later both the other guys were re-assigned to H-21 units when their units de-activated, also the class that followed mine all got H-21 assignments.


I reported in to my unit at Suffolk County, AFB just before Christmas 1959 and on 15 Sept. 1960, I reached my goal of becoming a crew chief and being on flight status. I was now in hog heaven!!!


For the next few years my assignment came down without any input from me and I continued to be assigned to helicopter units. HH-43B’s at the 31st ARS, Clark AB, P.I., 64-65; HH-43B’s at the 3750 CMS, Sheppard AFB, TX., 66-67; UH-1F/P’s at the 20th SOS, Nha Trang, RVN, 67-68; CH-3C/E’s at Det 15, EARRC, Patrick AFB, FL., 68-69; CH-3E’s 21st SOS, Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, 69-70.


Then along about here is when I begin to get involved with the directions my assignments were taking. Somewhere along the line I had made friends with some of the folks in Air Force assignments, I don’t remember how this occurred or when it occurred, but it began to pay off.


Since I was getting a bit tired of moving my family all across the country every year or so, I wanted to find some where that would be a controlled tour. After contacting someone in the helicopter field that I knew (can’t remember now who this was), I found out he was with the 1042nd Test Squadron at Dover, AFB, DE and that an assignment to this unit was a four year controlled tour. So on my ‘dream’ sheet this was my first choice, and he pulled some favors on his end and let me know that it was a done deal.


When I got my orders, they were to the 1st HS, Andrews AFB, MD. I got a hold of my contact and he told me he was not able to talk about it, but that things would work out. I found out later, that the 1042nd was deactivating and merging with the 1st. The 1st was also a four year controlled tour so I thought my nomadic status was going to change, at least for a while.


After about a year in the D.C. area, my wife and I were both going nuts living there. The 1st was a great unit, but D.C. was the pits. So I ask for and received a release from the squadron commander on my four year controlled tour. Here’s where I really begin to get involved directly with finding my assignments.


The C.O. said to me “where do you want to go? It can’t be over seas, because your assignment with the 1st restricts you from an over seas assignment for four years after you leave here”. “You find you an assignment and a slot and that’s where I get your orders for”.


Here I am, back in hog heaven again!!! I spent about two weeks calling every helicopter unit I could find and talking to a bunch of guys I had known in the helicopter field. I got in touch with an FE that I knew (damn CRS, I can’t remember his name right now) who was the standardization FE with the 39th ARRW at Richards-Gebaur AFB, MO. He let me know that it had not been officially announced yet, but the 39th ARRW was moving from Richards-Gebaur to Eglin AFB, FL. And that he was going to retire and not make the move and that his slot had not been filled yet.


Hot damn…..found me a flying job in Florida … how much better could it get. I told the 1st CO what I had found and about a week later he handed me my orders to the 39th ARRW. So in May of 71 we moved to Florida. Now I’m thinking wer are going to be here a while, since I’m restricted from overseas for four years.


Surprise!!! In mid 1972, while I was TDY to Thule, Greenland, I got blindsided and was notified that I was being reassigned to the 5040th HS, Elmendorf, AFB, AK. Of course I screamed and protested that I was restricted from going overseas for four years, then I pouted when I was told Alaska was not overseas, it was a State.  So in Aug. 72 we made the move to Alaska. But the big advantage was I was still on helicopters and still in a flying slot.


My closest threat to leaving the helicopter business came when I was due to rotate from the 5040th. I had a line number for E-8, so now my assignments were being handled by the Senior NCO Assignment Branch. The ‘helpful Chief’ (I’m being facetious here) at this branch sends me a nice letter, telling me how he’s there to help me get the assignment I want, blah, blah, blah, just fill out the dream sheet and send it to him. I did and I put in for CH-3’s at Patrick, Homestead and Tyndall.


A short time later I get another nice letter from him stating that there were no E-8 slots at any of the units I requested. He said that since I was now a 9 level that I no longer had to be considered for just helicopter assignments and he provided me with a list of the openings I could chose from. F-111’s at Holloman AFB, NM, F-4’s at George AFB, CA, or SR-71’s at Beal AFB, CA.


I liked to have died …. I got on the phone to him and pleaded my case, but he told me that those were the only choices I had and that if I didn’t chose one, he would.


Now it was urgent that I call on some old friends for help … I found out that the 20th SOS was about to be re-activated at Hurlburt Field, FL under TAC. It just so happened that the guy I had known in assignments was now the NCOIC of TAC assignments, so I called him up and pleaded for his help. He said that if I can get a TAC assignment out of the Senior NCO Assignment Branch, that once I belonged to TAC, he would divert my assignment to the 20th.


I guess my Special Operations experience played a big roll in this as well. So I make my choices to AF assignments; F-111’s, 1st choice (at least their wings swing), F-4’s second choice and SR-71’s last, knowing that the F-111’s and the F-4’s were TAC assignments and begin to sweat it out to see what they gave me.


About a week later I received a nice letter from the ‘helpful Chief’ at Senior NCO assignments telling me how pleased he was to give me my 1st choice of assignments to F-111’s at Holloman. O.K. now I’m headed to TAC, so I just have to sat quietly and bide my time until I get the official orders …. Which showed up in about two weeks. Once they were in hand I called my buddy at TAC Assignments and let him know. He said he would take care of it and called me back the next day and told me it was a done deal and that I would be diverted to the 20th. I ask if the AF Assignments Branch could mess this up in any way and he told me he had coded the diversion as mission critical and put some coding in it that would not allow for any changes.


I sat quietly for about a week to be sure then I called the ‘helpful Chief’ and told him thanks, but no thanks, I was not taking the Holloman assignment but that I would be going to the 20th at Hurlburt. He was p.o.’d and told me I was going to Holloman and that was it. About an hour later he called me and said “I don’t know how you did this, but there’s nothing I can do about it … you are going to the 20th”. I said “told you so!!!” and laughed out loud.


May of 1975, I’m at the 20th SOS, Hurlburt Field, FL., still in a flying slot, on my last hitch, I’ve got it made …. I’M BACK IN HOG HEAVEN AGAIN!!


On 15 September 1975, I was awarded my Chief Aircrew Member Badge (one of my proudest achievements) for 15 years on flight status. I’m good now till retirement in about four years.


Yah … right!! December 1976 finds me and the family at Det 1, 57th TFW, Indian Springs, NV. As Deputy Commander for Maintenance for the UH-1N unit there. I was officially removed from flying status on 28 February 1977 after a little over 16 ½ years. While this was a non-flying slot, it was still in helicopters and I was able to finish out my 20 years as a ‘Rotor Head’ and damn proud of it.


I worked and flew with the best men and equipment our country had and wouldn’t have traded it for the world. I retired on 30 June 1979 from Indian Springs and we moved to Ft. Walton Beach, FL. and since then we moved one more time to Navarre, FL., where I still reside.


Well, that’s my story … and I’m sticking to it!! (Jim Burns)