Hunched over the engine of his best friend’s Chevrolet 409 sports car, 15 year-old Pat Meleco turned his wrench.
Turn by turn, Meleco’s young hands explored the inner workings of the mid-century sports car and its “modern” engine.
“How does this thing work?” Meleco thought to himself as oil covered the teenager on his quest to discover the motor. “How can I make this engine better? And faster?”
This day took place almost 50 years ago when the retired master sergeant was a boy growing up in Albany, N.Y.
Meleco describes the 1950s and ‘60s as a time when everyone wanted to find ways to go faster, to discover how to generate more power from an engine, and when basic technology of a powertrain system was enlightening to him.
“Engines just fascinated me,” Meleco said. “But I wanted more. I wanted a bigger challenge than a car engine.”
Working on this “advanced” sports car ignited a spark in Meleco that half a century later has yet to be extinguished.
Growing up, Meleco had little interaction with airplanes. For the most part, his experience with aircraft was from what he saw on the television. But that experience was enough to entice the young New Yorker.
“It was fascinating to see something so heavy actually fly,” Meleco said. “It was hard to understand that an engine could actually keep that thing in the air.”
When Meleco walked into his first Air Force hangar at Griffiss Air Force Base, N.Y., on a beautiful June day in 1975, more than 40 engines lay in parts as the sun reflected off of them.
Today, after more than 20 years in the Air Force and more than a decade of civil service, Meleco begins his day just like he did when he was a 20-something one-striper in the 1970s. He wakes up, shaves, grabs his lunch bag and heads to the hangar on Robins Air Force Base, Ga., where he works on Air Force jet engines.
Since Meleco began his Air Force career, he has worked on jet engines of almost 20 different aircraft, including the F-4 Phantom, KC-135 Stratotanker, B-52 Stratofortress and T-38 Talon — some of the Air Force’s flagship aircrafts.
For the past six years, Meleco has been a work leader for the 562nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. There, he leads team members in performing inspections, modifications and repairs to the C-17 Globemaster III, where the unit averages roughly 70 C-17s repaired, modified or inspected a year.
Walking into Meleco’s home away from home, Hangar 83 on Robins, the work leader is immediately greeted by three of his co-workers, exchanging ribbing while planning out the work they’ll be doing for the day.
Collectively, this group of four civil service jet engine mechanics have almost 120 years of experience with three of the four men starting their jet engine careers as Airmen.
This abundance of experience isn’t unique for the 562nd AMXS.
“At most maintenance squadrons around the Air Force, there are many young Airmen right out of technical school,” said Capt. Bradley McNamara, the maintenance officer with the 562nd AMXS. “Here, it’s pretty easy to run into a maintainer who has been working on jet engines since before I was alive. And they still do the job because they have a passion for it.”
Since spring, this group of mechanics, in addition to many others in the squadron, have been working on 0265, the tail number of the C-17 in their hangar.
“Every one of you is special” — a popular phrase said by parents, coaches or teachers.
This phrase can be true when talking about C-17s, but this particular aircraft has a claim to fame no other has. It was the very first C-17 – ever — to be built and added to the Air Force fleet, now assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
Constructed in the late ‘80s and delivered to Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., in the early ‘90s, 0265 has been part of a fleet of aircraft responsible for everything from air dropping supplies to troops in need of ammunition, food or water in Afghanistan, to providing humanitarian relief to those impacted by natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010.
In recent months, the C-17 was the primary aircraft used to drop almost 50 pallets of supplies to Iraqi citizens displaced by current conflict in their country.
“Sometimes I’ll turn on the news and see the C-17 doing something important,” said McNamara. “Knowing that our team has touched that aircraft and set it up for success is a great feeling that we all share here.”
Throughout a C-17’s lifetime, it will have made many stops at the 562nd AMXS. For fiscal year 2014, more than 50 of the 213 C-17s assigned to the Air Force have made their way through Robins.
“Instead of trying to get the airplane to fly tomorrow, we’re looking to make sure the airplane can fly 40, 50 years from now,” McNamara said about the work they do at Robins, versus day-to-day maintenance accomplished throughout the Air Force. “We have airplanes in our fleet, like the KC-135, that have been flying since the 1950s. A good maintenance program has enabled those aircraft to still fly today.”
With this goal of enabling the C-17 to fly several more decades, maintainers here often call upon past experiences to find solutions to new problems.
“I feel like I have a vision to get things accomplished … a way to see through difficult task,” said Meleco of how he approaches any maintenance challenge. “I want to have answers and solutions.”
For McNamara and squadron leadership, having team members like Meleco is invaluable.
“Their experience is pretty awesome when we’re trying to think of solutions to a problem none of us have seen before,” said McNamara. “There have been many times where there’s a problem or situation going on that we haven’t seen before, but one of our maintainers had encountered decades ago on another aircraft, and help us through figuring out what we can do now.”
The young hands that made their first repairs decades ago may not be the freshest or strongest anymore, but Meleco is undeterred.
“Every day, I get to do a job I love,” Meleco said. “When you’re able to get paid to do a job you truly love, and one that makes a difference, well, you’re going to have one great life.”