Women patriots of the flight line: No boundaries for dedication, hard work and heart

  • Published
  • By Jenny Gordon
  • Robins Public Affairs
Go ahead, ask the question. Do you see yourself as a mechanic who is female? Or a female who is a mechanic?

If you've never asked, it then begs the question of why should it matter? After all, in our land of freedom and opportunity, the necessary education and tools are open to all.   

Recall the World War II images of Rosie the Riveter, the iconic representation of the American woman who worked in factories, shipyards and across the munitions industry to help win the war. The fact they were women didn't matter - there was a need and they filled it. 

Call them modern-day Rosies, and nearly 75 years later there are women who continue to support the warfighter.

At the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex, the repair, modification and overhaul of powerful weapons systems supports one of the Air Force's core capabilities: rapid global mobility.

In the aircraft maintenance field, Robins employs a total of 186 women who fall under the occupational series/job category of aircraft electricians, aircraft mechanics, aircraft pneudraulic systems mechanics and sheet metal mechanics. That's out of a workforce of more than 2,200 in just those fields alone.

Overall there are more than 3,400 personnel in the 402nd Aircraft Maintenance Group. 

The demands of the flight line are tough, with long hours and physically demanding work, according to Col. Jennifer Hammerstedt, 402nd AMXG commander. 

"Women are definitely the minority on the flight line; however, I have to admit, I don't even notice gender when I'm out walking around the group," she said. "When I stop to think about it, I do recognize the atypical career choice many of our female technicians have made.  To me every civilian Airman who raises their hand to serve our Air Force at Robins commits to the same thing - generating airpower for our Air Force."

Scoring well on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery Test while in high school, Barbara Greer never thought she'd enjoy a career in aircraft maintenance.

She completed basic training in the Marine Corps, and became the second female to be trained as an aircraft jet engine mechanic at technical training school in Millington, Tenn. 

After serving four years, she worked in civil service at Fort Benning, Ga., working on helicopters, and became the first female aircraft mechanic hired. 

Greer, 53, moved to Robins in 2001, where these days the Ellaville native is the lead C-130 weight and balance technician for the 402nd AMXG.

She's ultimately responsible for ensuring the aircraft is ready to go before functional test on the flight line. It's a job she takes seriously. By the end of fiscal 2015, she will have weighed and balanced 46 aircraft.

She shared the story of when she first joined the Marines at 17, how she had been afraid to speak up about a job. She didn't want to make a mistake, plus the pilot intimidated her.  She learned later something had gone wrong with the aircraft. Although the error wasn't hers, it taught her a valuable lesson. No matter what, she would speak up. 

"That happened to me some 40 years ago, and because of that it gave me the confidence to not be afraid anymore," she said. "If I'm not sure that everything is right with an aircraft, I won't give it over to the pilots." 

As part of a weight and balance check, an aircraft's inventory must be checked, a process that takes the most time. Then it's time to jack the aircraft up, in this case one weighing 80,000 pounds.  

Jacks will be placed at three points under the plane, after which it's lifted 2 to 3 inches above the floor. Ensuring an aircraft's center of gravity is correct is crucial.

"We want this plane to be as level as we can get it, especially with our cargo planes since these will load people and equipment. You want the center of gravity to be close to perfect," she said. 

Greer said she doesn't know very many women who work in her field, but credits everyone who came before her to help get where she is today. "At the end of the day I'm more about just getting a job done," she said.

When Samantha Hurst, 26, moved to Warner Robins after graduating from Ramstein American High School in Germany, she had an idea of what she wanted to do. 

She has fond memories of helping her dad build things - or rather taking over projects - so naturally she wanted to work with her hands.

Her dad, retired Chief Master Sgt. David "Opie" Hurst, is a C-130 Functional Test Flight chief; and mom works in the commissary. Nearly four years ago, Samantha came onboard too, today working as an aircraft mechanic on F-15s in the 561st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.

"I didn't know what to expect, but I love it. It's interesting work and something different all the time," she said.

She's one of a handful of female aircraft mechanics at Robins in a field mostly occupied by men. According to the latest figures from the Directorate of Personnel, there are 10 female aircraft mechanics; 572 are male. 

"It's pretty cool being part of a select few," she said. 

Other than that she doesn't see much difference in how the same work gets done. She's a meticulous worker, pays attention to detail, works great with coworkers and brings something a little extra, the same sentiments shared by coworkers.  

She was in the Air National Guard for a time, then attended Middle Georgia Technical College where she completed a sheet metal certificate program.

She took part in a Wage Grade Training Program offered by the complex, which hired its first group of targeted employees in 2011. 

The formal two-year training program was aimed toward aircraft and sheet metal mechanics, with several hundred hired to fulfill a depletion of experienced mechanics at the time. 

Trainees began at the WG-5 level, and once they became proficient in their respective aircraft work areas, they were promoted on until reaching WG-10. She recalled being the only female in her graduating class, which combined on-the-job training and class instruction. 

"If you enjoy working with your hands and putting pride in your work - this can be for you," she said. "I knew I'd always be turning wrenches ... I see myself as a mechanic who is a woman. I mean, we're all mechanics out here."

A San Antonio, Texas, native, Sarah Collazo had planned to enter nursing, but life happened.

She moved to Georgia with her family when dad, Edward Collazo, got a job at Robins. He's a sheet metal mechanic with the 559th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. 

After completing a co-op program at Middle Georgia College and graduating from Georgia Military College, Collazo, 30, also began her career at Robins in 2011.

Although she never saw herself working on military aircraft, working with her hands wasn't new. She grew up working on cars with dad.  

She started out with electronic warfare components, troubleshooting line reparable units, but later moved across base. 

She sees her work with running wires, disassembling, repairing, modifying and installing electronics systems and electrical components on C-17s as rewarding. There's bragging rights to be had in the family since her brother also works in maintenance.

"I love seeing the final product when we're done," said Collazo, an aircraft electrician with the 562nd AMXS.

Her advice to young women looking to enter the maintenance field is not to be intimidated.

"Know that you've got to be dedicated to the work," she said. "Come in knowing you're playing your part to support a warfighter." 

Having the mechanical knowledge, communication with your team members, and knowledge of the safety issues that surround you daily are key.

"This field is different, I never thought I'd be doing it," she admitted. "It may be different working with more men, but hey, we're just as capable. Women are a very essential part of the work force. We were able then, and we are able now to be vital assets to the mission."

Formerly working with C-130s, every day involves a new set of problems to solve for Patricia Brock, now an aircraft mechanic with the 561st AMXS. 

About 10 years ago she worked on C-130s in Greenville, S.C., was amazed at the wiring work being done, and saw it as a unique job of which she wanted to be a part. 

She's worked in factories, and for nine years worked at a Lockheed Martin sub-assembly plant building wire harnesses and installing electronics later put into submarines.  

"No two jets are the same. Even though they might have the same components, they don't fit exactly the same," said the 52-year-old Americus, Ga. native, who has worked at Robins for five years. "I enjoy the challenge, and knowing that a pilot is using the jet I've had a part in, and keeping our nation safe."

The work requires a little elbow grease, but that doesn't stop Brock from getting a chic and polished French manicure every now and then. If they break, they break. 

She's easy to spot, acrylic nails included, with a ponytail tucked neatly under a hat that reads "Corvette". 

"When I'm helping to check the aircraft, it's like I'm flying and landing the jet myself," she said. "My job is interesting, challenging and different because it takes real skill to say that I'm actually putting a military jet together with my bare hands. I feel I can contribute in a way no other person can." 

There are days when she might be reading technical orders or troubleshooting an issue. Other days can include installing general circuit breaker panels, connecting a wing harness back to a center wing box and leading edge or working the fuel pit.

Her best accomplishment to date? 

"I'm most proud showing that a woman like myself can do the same work as a man, and that she can handle it with her head held just as high," she said.  Yet no matter what - you have to be willing to give 100 percent.

"Lives depend on you to do the best job possible. Always be proud of what you are building," she said.

This article is part two in a two-part series celebrating some of the huge contributions women have made to U.S. war efforts. This week we are focusing on women currently working on the flight line at Robins to ensure aircraft are returned to the warfighter.