By Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith , 139th Airlift Wing
/ Published September 06, 2011
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- The Air Force's last serving reciprocating engine flight engineer took his final flight here today at the air base he enlisted at more than 41 years ago.
Chief Master Sgt. Michael Reinert retired from military service at Rosecrans Air National Guard Base Sept. 6 amongst the aviators he served and near the aircraft he helped fly.
The chief landed on a 139th Airlift Wing, C-130H Hercules aircraft, thus completing his final mission as a flight engineer with the Missouri ANG. Airmen wished him well as he walked off the flight line.
Days before his final flight, he sat in an empty office after packing away his photos and memorabilia earlier.
"I'm very happy with the way things all worked out," he said.
Reinert, flight engineer superintendent, first flew the C-97 Stratofreighter and KC-97 Stratotanker. He was the Air Force's last serving engineer to have managed those piston-driven aircraft on airlift and refueling missions.
He joined the Air Force in January 1970.
After qualifying as a flight engineer, he took part in Operation Creek Party, in which a dozen Air Guard KC-97L squadrons provided the aerial refueling for the U.S. Air Forces training in Europe while the Air Force's newer KC-135s supported Strategic Air Command missions and growing missions in Vietnam.
According to National Guard historians, Creek Party was "the earliest known sustained overseas volunteer rotation by a reserve component of the U.S. armed forces to support a real-world military mission in a situation short of war."
Volunteers ran it from 1967, through the end of the draft era to 1977.
"It established a template for overseas deployments by the Air Guard to support operational U.S. Air Force missions," said Dr. Charles Gross, director of the Air Guard History Program at the Air Guard Readiness Center in Maryland.
Serving on two-week rotations in Rhein-Main, Germany, Reinert refueled F-4 Phantoms, F-100 Super Sabers and F-105 Thunderchiefs.
During aerial refueling operations, Reinert said the boom operator hooked up to approaching aircraft and the engineer pumped the gas using a refueling panel in the cockpit.
For the C-97, the engineer's panels included an abundance of gauges to monitor 224 sparkplugs and 112 cylinders of four gas engines. The KC-97L had additional instrumentation for the two jet-fuel-powered, J-47 jet pods.
Gross said the idea of adding jet engines came from the Illinois Air Guard's 126th Air Refueling Group. The jets made KC-97s safer on takeoffs and allowed them to refuel the latest generation of faster fighter aircraft.
Aerial hookups could be challenging due to frequent rain and snow, said Gross. To keep up with the F-4's slow speed, the aircrews had to dive the KC-97L at full power.
The Airmen typically flew three sorties a day and refueled four to eight aircraft each sortie.
"That's where my love for flying really got strong; I had to know the airplane," said Reinert. "It was pretty cool."
The engineer's main panel had a mass of instrumentation - including ignition analyzers - as well as engine mixture, fuels system and generator system controls.
Reinert had to figure out brake horsepower and air speed and manage a number of other critical items from dial displays.
Between takeoffs and landings, the engineer managed aircraft power with his own throttles, prop and master prop controls.
Creek Party ended having better integrated the active duty and reserve forces into the Total Force policy, said historians.
"You might say that [Creek Party] was part of the Air Guard becoming an 'operational force,' although that term was not widely used until the 21st century," said Gross.
In 10 years, Airmen flew 6,512 accident-free sorties, completing 47,207 hookups, and off-loading 137,398,620 pounds of fuel.
Shortly after, the Air Force's remaining C- and KC-97s were retired from military service.
"I think that the KC-97Ls were scrapped because they were just getting too old and too expensive to maintain, plus other airframes became available from the Air Force," said Gross.
Reinert and others in the Air Guard retrained to fly the C-130, and they spent many more flight hours flying operational missions overseas.
"When it was time to pay back for all that training, our aircrews made it all work in combat," said Reinert.
He flew missions into Salvador and Honduras, operating out of Panama. He donned his desert flight suit for Operations Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
A flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan, was among Reinert's more memorable. It was one of the Air Guard's early bilateral, military-to-military exchanges.
"We were there for 10 days, seeing the cultural differences and what was behind the old Iron Curtin, and I grew up serving into the Cold War days," he said.
The city was as stark as he expected, but despite that, the people he met were very optimistic.
"Anywhere I've been in the world the people are still good people," he said.
After flying one mission, a top Air Force, Air Mobility Command general told Reinert that he wanted to present him with his 12,500 flight-hour patch.
Reinert fell short of those hours. He said he focused more on sharing and securing his wing's missions, much like the leaders who influenced him.
"The guys in front of me were the guys I really looked up to because they cared about the airplanes, and they did everything they could to ensure we cared about the airplanes too," he said.
In the early '90s, he took interest in organizing air shows. The new and vintage aircraft displays, the excitement in the community as well as the people he met in the air show industry drew him in.
He helped organize four air shows at Rosecrans, which eventually earned the prestigious Dick Schram Memorial Community Relations Award in 2010.
Lately, the Air Guard's C-130 cockpit modernization and enlisted aircrew rank changes have grounded him.
The aircraft toggle switches and dials Reinert spent a career monitoring and mastering were getting replaced by a modern, digital glass cockpit.
"With the electric navigation system they are installing, the navigator's seat goes away and now the flight engineer is more involved with flying the airplane. They are going to be backing up on everything. They are really going to be crew resource managers."
He said he believes his Airmen are up to the task.
He also believes they deserve a rank befitting the position, which he's never stopped advocating for.
"When I started flying, the base flight engineer was a master sergeant in the C-97," he said. "Then it fell back to staff sergeants, and then technical sergeant was the top grade."
Recently, it has gone back to staff sergeant, but with a couple of "old-timers" retiring, as well as getting some of their rank back in their manning documents, no Airman at Rosecrans is going to lose a stripe.
"But it's going to take me to get gone first," said Reinert, with a smile.