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KC-10’s first ‘off-the-street’ flight engineer living childhood dream

Senior Airman Katie Rettinger, a flight engineer with the 78th Air Refueling Squadron, prepares a KC-10 Extender tanker airplane for a flight Sept. 22, 2015, at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. Rettinger is the first Airman to enlist directly into a KC-10 flight engineer position without having prior experience in another military profession. (U.S. Air Force photo by Shawn J. Jones)

Senior Airman Katie Rettinger, a flight engineer with the 78th Air Refueling Squadron, prepares a KC-10 Extender tanker airplane for a flight Sept. 22, 2015, at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. Rettinger is the first Airman to enlist directly into a KC-10 flight engineer position without having prior experience in another military profession. (U.S. Air Force photo by Shawn J. Jones)

JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. -- Senior Airman Katie Rettinger walked around a KC-10 Extender on the flight line at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. She inspected the landing gear, engines, wings and the other important parts of the refueling tanker's exterior, ensuring it was fit to fly into the combat zone of Southwest Asia. The passengers boarding the tanker, most of who were dressed in the sand-colored flight suits of Airmen headed to war, probably had no idea Rettinger was the first flight engineer in the KC-10's 34-year history to fly without first serving in another military specialty.

Flight engineers help operate the KC-10 by calculating the aircraft's weight, balance and performance data, determining fuel consumption, performing pre-flight and post-flight inspections and monitoring the aircraft's engine and control systems. They also serve as the master of checklists that help ensure every procedure gets done correctly. These many responsibilities make it difficult for new enlistees to qualify as flight engineers, which is why every other KC-10 flight engineer had a previous military profession, most commonly in aircraft maintenance.

While Rettinger said she appreciates being the first "off-the-street" engineer, for her, the experience is more about living out of her childhood dream and the roundabout path she took to do it.

"I had an obsession with space starting when I was about six years old," Rettinger said. "All I wanted to do was pilot the space shuttle and go to Mars."

She said she thought the best way to get to pilot the space shuttle was to learn how to fly in the military. This led to a budding interest in airplanes and aviation.

"I liked to look up at the planes flying over my parents' house," she said. "I remember waving up at them, and I always hoped the pilots would see me and wave back."

However, as she began to transition into young adulthood, her dreams of flight were replaced by athletic pursuits.

She was captain of her high school track team and participated in an Olympic-developmental program for field hockey. 

She would go on to play field hockey at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, but her dreams of sport were eventually replaced by academic pursuits.

Rettinger said she always considered herself adventurous and was interested in maps, languages and cultures from across the globe. Her college studies were dominated by classes related to geography, cartography and the Mandarin Chinese language.

After graduating from Rutgers, she got married and began working as a cartographer and surveyor for a historical preservation and archaeology company. 

"I learned a lot about local history, participated in archaeological digs and made some awesome maps, but I just wasn't truly happy and knew something was missing," she said.

That's when her husband Rick, a former active-duty Airman, encouraged her to revive her childhood dreams of flight. Rettinger decided to pursue her private pilot license. Her obsession with flying quickly returned and she earned her license in 2013.

She also reached out to an Air Force Reserve recruiter to see if she could fly with the military.
The recruiting process for aspiring aircrew members is more extensive than for their non-flying counterparts, said Rettinger's recruiter Tech. Sgt. Andrew Davis. The enlistment process for a non-flyer takes approximately 30 to 45 days, he said, but an aircrew enlistment can take six to nine months.

"There are so many additional roadblocks and ways for applicants to get weeded out," Davis said.
Rettinger's major roadblock was that no other Air Force applicant had successfully enlisted into a KC-10 flight engineer position, but she was determined to fly as an aircrew member.

Davis had his doubts about trying to recruit a new Airman into a flying position, but figured Rettinger was worth the effort because throughout the recruiting process, she was responsive, thorough and detail-oriented.

"In the three years I've been a recruiter, she's been my best applicant," he said.

So Davis and Rettinger talked with Chief Master Sgt. Robert Gozdur, the chief engineer for the 78th Air Refueling Squadron, to see if his squadron was willing to take on a brand new Airman.

Gozdur said his squadron looks at a variety of factors when hiring a new flight engineer, and must be especially careful when considering an "off-the-street" recruit.

But after interviewing Rettinger, Gozdur said the choice wasn't difficult at all.

"Her qualifications would have enabled her to apply for a pilot positon, had she chosen that route." Gozdur said. "It's not just her education credentials that impressed us. Her cartography career and the maturity shown in her interview were also factors in the hiring decision."

Before welcoming Rettinger to the squadron, Gozdur had to secure the approval of the decision-makers at Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command, who promptly agreed that Rettinger was an exceptional candidate, worthy of a flight engineer position despite her lack of prior Air Force experience.

After completing basic military training and flight engineer technical training, Rettinger began flying with the 78th ARS in January. So far, she said it's been everything she's dreamed of."

"I want to fly in the Reserve for as long as possible," she said.

But with a resume as strong as hers, she would consider switching seats in the future.

"As an engineer, I'm learning a lot about the airplane, and I already know I can fly," she said. "As much as I love the engineer seat, I would take a pilot job in a heartbeat." 

And she still has an interest in space flight, but she said she's in no particular rush to move on.

"I finally feel like I am back on track with my childhood dreams. I feel like this is where I belong, and I absolutely love it," she said. "I have no regrets with the other paths that I took before this one, but I'm happy that I finally found the right path for me."

Now, when Rettinger looks down from the clouds, she said she wonders if there are any little girls waving up at her, dreaming of flight.