EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- Just three short years ago, Lt. Aaron Berry was maintaining A-10 Thunderbolt IIs.
Today, he's flying them.
In April 2009, then-Tech. Sgt. Aaron Berry was selected by the Deserving Airman Commissioning board to attend Officer Training School, and then attend a pilot-training program.
An assistant crew chief at the time, Berry, and his supervisor, were single-handedly responsible for maintaining the A-10s assigned to them. Berry not only launched and recovered the aircraft before and after flight, but he also was responsible for correcting maintenance issues that arose during missions.
Berry headed to OTS and pilot training in October 2009 with a vast knowledge of the A-10 and a private-pilot's license he had earned for his civilian job. He knew the inner workings of the A-10 and had experience troubleshooting as a maintainer, so when it was time to fly the "hawg," he had a leg-up on the training.
"The guys I worked with in maintenance really knew their stuff," Berry said. "They've been around for awhile, and their ability to diagnose problems is amazing. It helped me at pilot training to have that kind of system knowledge. When we did emergency-procedure training, I understood a little better why we were doing some of the processes."
In July, Berry finally returned to the 442nd Fighter Wing as a lieutenant, but this time he was assigned to the 303rd Fighter Squadron as a pilot. Today, the first lieutenant attributes much of his ability to fly the A-10 to his background in maintenance.
"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for what I had done as a crew chief," he said. "The things I learned there and what I learned as an enlisted guy, knowing what it takes to get the jets fixed and ready to fly -- you can't really respect it until you've been there and actually had to do it."
His appreciation for maintenance has actually increased since he's become a pilot, he said.
"I think if I come back from a flight and my jet has maintenance issues, I will be thinking of how I would have fixed it as a crew chief," he said, "but I know there will be a lot of things way beyond my knowledge. The systems have advanced technologically even in the last three years, and these maintainers have had to keep up with every change."
Within a week of returning to the 442nd Fighter Wing, Berry headed out for Distant Frontier here with approximately 300 other pilots and maintainers. Distant Frontier is a live-fire munitions exercise that allows pilots to drop bombs at a nearby range -- something not normally afforded to these A-10 pilots at ranges near Whiteman.
"Training in Alaska and dropping live munitions here is going to be a great experience for all of us, but to drop bombs for the first time - in Alaska - is going to be especially memorable for Lt. Berry," said Col. Gregory Eckfeld, the 442nd Fighter Wing vice commander and A-10 pilot.
Flying in and out of valleys, between mountains and having the chance to shoot the 30 mm Gatling gun was amazing, said Berry after his return from the range. Even more, he flew in a jet he once crewed and alongside a pilot whose sorties he had launched before.
Landing on the runway and seeing a fellow crew chief "catch" the jet however, gave him an excitement he said he won't soon forget.
"When I taxied in and saw (Tech. Sgt. Craig Hopkins) catching the jet, it was exciting to see a familiar face, someone I've worked with so many times, on the runway," Berry said.
While he's got a whole career of first-time fighter pilot experiences ahead of him, there's one thing Berry said would bring his career full circle: seeing his name as the lead pilot on tail number 117, the jet he maintained as assistant crew chief.
"I took so much pride in my jet that it would just be awesome to see my name on the side of it," Berry said. "I feel like I grew up working on these jets."