By Shawn J. Jones, 514th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
/ Published December 04, 2015
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.
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
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 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
"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
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.
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
After graduating from Rutgers, she got married and began
working as a cartographer and surveyor for a historical preservation and
"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.
reached out to an Air Force Reserve recruiter to see if she could fly with the
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
"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
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
"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.
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"
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."
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.
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
"I want to fly in the Reserve for as long as possible," she
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
"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.