For a young kid living in the small, valley town of Rockwood, Tennessee, during the early 1980s, there wasn’t a lot to do. So Master Sgt. Randy Rollins and his brothers grew to love tinkering with their father’s power tools in his garage, taking things apart and putting them back together.
Not long after, he began hanging out in his uncle Eddy’s garage, where he’d often sit in the engine bay of some old car Eddy was working on, handing him tools and learning to disassemble an engine.
But it wasn’t until he took a ride in his uncle’s dune-buggy style Volkswagen Beetle, spending the day driving through mud and climbing the Smokey Mountains that he truly fell in love with cars, and more specifically, Beetles.
“To me, the Beetle is a very iconic car. You’ll see kids at a very young age and they have no idea what it is, but they’re drawn to it,” Rollins said. “With hardly any experience, they already know what a Volkswagen is.”
As he got older, his affinity for working on cars and Volkswagens only grew stronger, and when it came time to pick out his first car, it only seemed natural that it was a Beetle. While not many 15-year old kids’ idea for a first car is a rusted out 1958 Beetle stranded in the middle of the woods, Rollins saw past its imperfections and envisioned what it would one day become.
“I think we paid $600 for it and started working on it. Over time, I got it to where it was drivable,” said Rollins, who lovingly named the car Betsy. “It had a lot of rust, the motor didn’t run – basically nothing worked when we pulled it out of the woods. Being 15, we did as much work as we could, but we paid people to do the engine work. I’ve been around those type of cars ever since.”
When he was a junior in high school, Rollins’ older brother joined the Air Force and became an aircraft maintainer. Rollins and his family visited him when he was stationed at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, and it was there when Rollins first saw a C-5 Galaxy in person. He even was able to venture inside and sit in the pilot’s seat.
“I knew from that time, that I was definitely going to join the Air Force,” Rollins recalled. “Seeing how huge it was and thinking how could this thing get off the ground. You can see it on TV, but it really doesn’t do it justice until you’re right next to the airplane and you look up and it’s the size of a tall building. It’s essentially a building flying in the air.”
True to his word, Rollins enlisted in the Air Force in January 2000 and got the job he knew he was destined for – an aircraft maintainer, just like his older brother.
“I knew the minute I decided to join the Air Force and do something maintenance wise,” he said. “I always loved working with my hands and repairing stuff. I talked to the recruiter, and found aircraft structural maintenance. That fit me perfectly, I felt I could transition to that very easily.”
Repairing aircraft gave Rollins the same sense of accomplishment he gained from restoring old cars, but it meant more knowing the responsibility put on his shoulders to do a good job.
“To me, it’s the joy and satisfaction of taking something completely broken and mangled and see it transform into something beautiful,” he said. “To see (the aircraft) come in broken, get your hands on it and bring it back to a like-new condition, that’s the best feeling in the world.”
Rollins sees a lot of similarities in maintaining the C-5 and working on one of his three Beetles he now owns.
“These aircraft fly hundreds of hours flying cargo around, and it takes a constant, 24 hours a day, 365 (days a year) maintaining it. You have teams and teams of people maintaining these aircraft,” he said. “An old vehicle is no different. You can put all the new parts on it in the world, but it’s still going to be an old vehicle, and you got to continue to maintain it.”
Like the cars he restores, the C-5 is a classic in its own right, with the first aircraft delivered to the Air Force in 1970. Now, every C-5 assigned to Dover is an “M” model, which boasts upgraded engines and avionics that allow it to far exceed the capabilities of previous models. The Air Force plans for the C-5 to be an active airframe in its inventory beyond 2040, but it will take excellent maintenance for that to become a reality.
Rollins believes that shouldn’t be a problem because the Air Force recruits the very best maintainers and not everyone is made out to perform the job.
“It takes a very select group of people who can do that. Being a maintainer is a pride thing, you definitely have to take a lot of pride in your work,” he said. “Let’s face it, what you do when that pilot gets in that seat, he’s putting his life in your hands. One wrong move, and somebody could die. Some people just aren’t cut out to do that.”
He’ll admit, though, early in his career, he struggled to adapt to what it takes to be a good Airman. That’s when his supervisor at Yokota Air Base, Japan, Master Sgt. Ronald Peck, showed him how to be a great maintainer and an even better Airman.
“He kind of took me under his wing,” Rollins said. “I was good working with my hands, but I wasn’t so good at being a good Airman. He definitely mentored and helped me throughout. I can contribute where I’m at today and what I’ve accomplished to him. In my 15-year career, I can attribute a lot, or everything, to him.”
These days, Rollins doesn’t get his hands dirty at work like he did earlier in his career. As the 436th Maintenance Squadron’s maintenance production superintendent at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, his duties entail ensuring his squadron’s maintenance work orders are completed on time. He keeps his leadership updated on the stages of each work order and visits each maintenance shop within his squadron all the time. It’s during these times, when Rollins has moments to talk with younger maintainers, that he remembers the lessons taught to him by Peck and passes on as much knowledge and mentorship he can.
“I may not be doing the work, but being a ‘pro super,’ if someone’s having an issue and if it’s something I have experience with, then I can pass that along to them and help them out,” he said. “If someone retires from the Air Force and doesn’t pass that knowledge down to the next guy, then I think that’s the worse thing in the world you can do.”
Like Rollins early in his career, Senior Airman Derek Byrd, an aircraft structural maintenance journeyman assigned to the 436th MXS, has been mentored by active duty and retired Air Force maintainers, and he can already see the positive impact it’s had on him.
“It’s made me a better Airman, leader, person and made me a heck of a lot better at my job,” Byrd said. “They’ve seen different things, they can teach you different things. You can work with five different people and learn five different ways to do the exact same job. It was really nice having people like that being able to influence me at such an early point in my career.”
Rollins has used the vast amount of knowledge he’s gained from his time in the Air Force, his Uncle Eddy and his first supervisor, to restore many classic cars and even a UH-1 Huey that now sits in a memorial area in Dover. But his favorite car is still Betsy, the blue 1958 Beetle he bought when he was 15 that has traveled with him throughout his career, and he still drives it today.
“It’s like anything, if you (fix) it with your own hands, you have more love and appreciation for it. It’s very sentimental,” he said. “I’ve had (Betsy) everywhere with me. It’s traveled three different states, I’ll probably never get rid of it. If I totaled it today, I’d probably spend $5,000 to get it back on the road. It’s one of those things you never get rid of.”
Although Rollins still has a few years left before his Air Force career comes to an end, he said he hopes to one day restore classic cars for a living, continuing to pass down the lessons taught to him by his mentors to the next generation. And Betsy will still be by his side every step of the way.