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Long Goodbye: Reserve Airman Retires After 41 Years

Tech. Sgt. Robert Wegeman, 919th Special Operations Wing, kisses his F-106A Delta Dart, now a static display at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sam King)
Tech. Sgt. Robert Wegeman, 919th Special Operations Wing, kisses his F-106A Delta Dart, now a static display at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sam King)

When a 19-year-old Robert Wegeman Jr. left Louisiana and joined the Air Force in 1976, Star Wars didn't exist, Rocky had yet to fight Apollo, gas was 60 cent per gallon, the A-10 Thunderbolt was less than six months old, the F-15 was less than two years old and the main military fighter aircraft was the F-4.

After 41 years of service and 16 different Air Force aircraft maintained, now-Tech. Sgt. Wegeman, 919th Special Operations Maintenance Group, said goodbye to the Blue August 14, on his 60th birthday.

"I wanted to defend the country and that's exactly what I've done," said the tall, lean, bespectacled man about why he followed his father into the Air Force. "I've truly enjoyed protecting the airspace of this country."

During his storied four-decade career, Wegeman traveled to many different bases under five major commands, deployed more than 10 times all over the world, and had six different air force specialty codes -- four in aircraft maintenance and two in aircraft weapons systems.

During his career, Wegeman, currently a quality assurance aircraft inspector, maintained T-33s, EB-57s, F-15s, A-10s, F-4s, MC-130Es, C-145s, and C-146s, but his favorite aircraft was his first one -- the F-106 Delta Dart.

"The F-106 was ahead of its time," said Wegeman, who maintained the aircraft from 1976 to 1982 at Langley AFB, Virginia. "Performance-wise, I felt it was comparable to the (F-15) Eagle. It kept us busy back then. We were accomplishing 20-plus sorties on a daily basis."

Before leaving the F-106 and the 48th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, he had the chance to fly in one of the aircraft he loved so much. It was his time spent maintaining with the 48th FIS that he said inspired him to make the Air Force his career.

The highlight of his career came in 1991, when an F-106 he'd been a crew chief on was chosen for permanent display at Tyndall AFB. It meant so much to him that on his final Friday in the Air Force, he donned his dress blues and visited his old friend one last time.

He planted a goodbye kiss on the side of the aircraft display just had he'd done before each flying sortie.

From his beloved F-106s, Wegeman moved to A-10s, then F-4Es and F-15s during his 10 years on active duty. In 1986, Wegeman returned home and transitioned to the Louisiana Air National Guard. He spent 11 years maintaining F-15s with the 159th Fighter Group there before becoming an air reserve technician in 1997.

Wegeman loved maintaining military aircraft so much he continued his passion off-duty by building detailed scaled-down models of his beloved warbirds. A hobby that would benefit on the job.

"With him building all the plane models, he taught himself a lot about aircraft," said Master Sgt. Michael Zukosky, Wegeman's co-worker in the 919th SOMXG. "I believe it helped him identify how different air planes controls work and what they do. That working knowledge of the components helped with identifying problems on several aircraft stationed here."

After nine years as a weapons loader on the A-10, the base realignment and closure process forced him to transition to another unit and aircraft. This time, he joined the 919th Special Operations Wing and transitioned from fighters to prop aircraft in 2006.

Though he lived in Louisiana, Wegeman elected to make his home in lodging here to serve 10 more years in the Air Force and with the wing.

Though he was away from home and working on new equipment his attention to for his aircraft never wavered.

"Many occasions, I visited the flightline and watched Bob care for his plane," said Master Sgt. Rory Tassin, 919th Maintenance Squadron. "He took pride as he worked and shined that bird."

Those years of care and attention made for a good fit in his current QA position.

He is very knowledgeable when it comes to aircraft and military history of them," said Tassin. It definitely give him the right to inspect and the opportunity to assist any and all who work on the planes or back shop."

Tassin continued saying during some recent base renovations, the maintainers shared a make-shift dining facility. Military aircraft models hung from the ceiling of the room. During the lunch breaks, Wegeman would give his fellow Airmen a history lesson on any plane that caught his eye.

Wegeman said the camaraderie and drive of the Airmen he's maintained with have remained the same throughout the decades.

"There has always been a strong commitment to achieving air supremacy," said Wegeman, who currently sports 61 medals and devices on his ribbon rack.

The technical sergeant said he served for as long as he had simply for the joy he gained from working on aircraft.

When asked what his plans are for the future back home in Baton Rouge, he simply said to "take it easy."

His message to the Airmen continuing to serve was to "continue to do your absolute best to defend our country through whichever means you serve, for we are the most free nation on the planet."

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