Since his installation as the first chief master sergeant of the Air Force in 1967, Chief Paul W. Airey’s name and legacy has swirled around the service with the mystique of a living legend. For many, he was a character from the pages of Air Force history. Chances are, when he died March 11 in Panama City, Fla., many Airmen scratched their heads and uttered a punch line from one of his favorite jokes: “I thought he died years ago.”
The chief chose to introduce himself to us this way when I first heard him speak in 2004. I was part of a class at the Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., NCO Academy, which he came to address.
“When I come here, at least one or two people always tell me, ‘I thought you were dead, chief,’” he said. We understood at that moment that the chief didn’t take himself too seriously. We sat back in anticipation, knowing we were about to get something special.
What we received was a rare treasure – knowledge transmitted across an unbroken connection with the very people who stood-up our Air Force. Measuring the gift of opportunity we got that day is difficult. Chief Airey was, after all, someone you read about in the Professional Development Guide. He was a question on a WAPS test.
His bio was simply unreal. He was a World War II combat veteran who began each mission with a very real probability of not coming back. He endured hardship as a prisoner of war. He served across the transition from Army Air Corps to Air Force; he saw the uniforms change from brown to blue. He then went on to become a first sergeant, and ultimately, our first CMSAF.
Calling him a warrior is not an exaggeration, nor is it cliché to say that he exemplified sacrifice. It’s exactly correct to state that he gave his life to the Air Force from his enlistment in 1942 right up to his death.
After retirement in 1970, he was a regular speaker, guide and mentor for Airmen. He advised those in the highest levels of command and spent endless hours of his time sharing his experience and inspiration with Airmen and NCOs going through PME.
As he spoke to my class about his career and experiences, he gave us his perspective on where the enlisted force was as of May 2004. He asserted we had advanced in capability by leaps and bounds and we were meeting what he considered to be the significant challenges of Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. At that time, every negative aspect of our progress in each of these campaigns was making headlines, and uncertainty seemed to be the only guarantee.
Just days before, we all learned Pat Tillman had died in Afghanistan. This news came like a kick in the stomach.
So it was a much-needed morale boost to hear the chief, a man who had been to hell and back in service to his country, say he was proud of us and was confident we would get the job done.
There are thousands of Airmen who were touched by the chief’s personality and perspective over the decades. Did we appreciate that we had a living legend among us? Did we understand how fortunate we were? Yes, I think we did.
As improbable as it was to over-hype Chief Airey, it was equally difficult to under-appreciate him. As he departed our auditorium that day, we stood marveling at what we had just seen and heard. We also marveled at the fact that at 81, he drove himself to the engagement.
I hope his death has given us all a chance to marvel again at his contribution and to make sure his legendary legacy lives on.