Dover Air Force Base --
A sit-down interview with two chief master sergeants at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, recently mirrored a casting call for the next rendition of a “Grumpier Old Men” movie.
The lightning fast quips and slams shared between Bryan Ford and Robert Wright dates back to the 1980s, when the two lived only six miles apart and attended rival high schools in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Ford is a 1986 graduate from E.C. Glass High School while Wright graduated one year later from Heritage High School.
“They held him back – twice,” joked Ford.
“At least I didn’t have a goat for a mascot,” returned Wright.
In actuality, E.C. Glass is home to the “Hilltoppers,” and they often competed against the Pioneers, Wright’s alma mater.
The razzing continued as the two talked about their different choice of athletics during high school.
Ford, who still plays the sport today, ran the fields for soccer.
“I was a man,” blurted Wright, “so I played baseball.”
Ford said when it came to sports, the town was divided – half of the families for us and the other half for them, which made football season interesting.
Both teams shared the same football field, so no one could claim they had home field advantage.
Sharing resources is something the two chiefs excelled at in their military professions.
Ford joined the Air Force soon after graduation and was assigned as a C-5 Galaxy aircraft mechanic.
“The economy in Lynchburg at the time wasn’t booming,” said Ford, when explaining why he chose to join the military. “There was no money for college, and my grades were average; so, I mainly joined to learn a trade and make some money.”
A couple of years later in 1988, Wright also joined the Air Force and worked in a similar aircraft avionics career field but for C-141 Starlifter aircraft based at McGuire AFB, New Jersey – just one state away from where Ford fixed aircraft in Delaware. Wright also worked on C-130 aircraft overseas in Japan.
After deciding to make the AF a career in 1994, Wright received an assignment to Dover AFB, where Ford was working as a maintainer. Ford had experience working on C-141s as well as C-5A and B models.
This was the first time the two had seen each other since high school.
“Oh my, I can’t forget that ugly mug,” exclaimed Wright when he saw Ford at work.
Soon after Wright’s arrival, Ford transitioned to the Air Force Reserve at Dover AFB.
The two briefly set aside their humorous jabs to share how they relied on their hometown connection during this time at Dover.
“I remember it took me a good eight months to feel comfortable in this arena,” said Wright. “But, I knew I could count on (Ford) to show me the ropes; he had such a good reputation.”
Ford, now a 512th Airlift Wing reservist, also recalled learning from Wright, who had remained on active duty with the 436th Airlift Wing.
“When you get out there on the flightline, it didn’t matter that we were in different units,” said Ford. “He was learning from me, and I was learning avionics from him. I was a flying mechanic, so I was learning the flying side as well.”
They worked in two separate aircraft maintenance units, known as the Red and Blue AMUs.
“There were times when Wright was shorthanded, so I’d help him out,” said Ford, who couldn’t resist another quick jab. “Plus, he didn’t have any friends – or teeth.”
The parlay on jokes could only last so long between the two old-timers, who said they both go home to Lynchburg occasionally and hit their favorite restaurants. One serves up Ford’s favorite, a “cheesy western,” a single patty w/ cheese, egg and sweet cabbage relish.
Wright said he makes sure Ford always knows when he’s enjoying a “cheesy western” back home by tagging him on Facebook.
But for Wright, his hometown food spot is a roadside country store, which he claimed has the best hot dogs in the world.
After nine years at Dover AFB, Wright moved on to travel more of the world with the Air Force, returning to Dover for the second time in 2006.
Upon his return, he and his wife unknowingly chose a house less than a mile and a half from where Ford lived.
“It took him a long time to figure out who was leaving a flaming paper sac on his doorstep,” Wright wisecracked.
The taunting continued as the two jested over each other’s “mid-life crisis” cars parked at their homes.
Ford owns a red 1989 Jaguar convertible, while Wright’s pride is a 1993 aquamarine Corvette.
“Barbie blue is a better description,” Ford poked.
“Well, at least I can still feel the wind in my hair,” Wright ragged, regarding Ford’s thinning hairline.
By the mid-2000s, both Ford and Wright had tallied two children each – Ford boasting two girls and Wright with two boys.
Ford was serving as a dedicated crew chief on an airplane in the pay grade of E-6, when Wright took the lead militarily, upon his promotion to E-7 as the flightline production superintendent.
“Operationally, during the week, I was working for him,” said Ford. “If my plane was launching, I was working with him constantly.
“And, if he was trying to get an aircraft off, he knew he could come grab me. So, we again used each other’s experience.”
The next few years of their careers encompassed several similar milestones, including higher rank promotions and appointed key positions of leadership. Ford climbed the ladder through the Air Force Reserve, while Wright progressed through the active-duty Air Force.
Each of their accolades led them to the same place – literally, the same office.
In 2008, Ford was the 512th Maintenance Squadron flight chief, and Wright was the 436th Maintenance Squadron flight chief. The duo was paired to work in the very same office, working together to solve issues regarding aircraft maintenance at Dover AFB.
“Once again, we were in the trenches together,” said Ford. “We were revving up for the stand-up of the Regional Isochronal Inspection Dock, the only major inspection dock in the Air Force for C-5s.”
The two peers were completely immersed during this time.
“Oh yeah, (Wright) brought me coffee every day and hot food in the winter,” Ford laughingly said.
“Please, I’d have to wake him up from all his naps,” Wright served back.
Not to be out done, between 2009 and 2012, Ford, in his 40s, upped the kid count to four. Also, around that time, Wright lassoed the highest enlisted rank possible – chief master sergeant.
“It didn’t take me much longer to put on chief, but he still outranks me,” said Ford, who added with a smirk, “but, I’ll get to wear chief longer in the Reserve.”
Both serving the AF and AF Reserve as chief master sergeants in the maintenance arena at the same base landed them once again in mirroring roles for the 512th and 436th maintenance groups.
Ford’s position was as chief enlisted manager, and Wright served as the superintendent. Their titles were different, but their functions were the same. They served as the enlisted representative to their respective maintenance group commanders for 1,600 enlisted members throughout eight maintenance and aerial port squadrons at four locations on the East Coast.
These Lynchburg lads have tackled numerous Total Force Initiatives together, including the Engine Reclamation Project, which involved active-duty and reserve mechanics triaging older C-5 engines to determine fitness for continued service. The initiative allowed other Air Force bases to continue operating their legacy aircraft during the fleet’s modernization to the C-5M Super Galaxy.
“We would bounce ideas off each other to get different perspectives,” said Ford. “We definitely leveraged each other’s strengths.”
Wright recalled when the active-duty Air Force mandated a safety stand-down day for training.
“No doubt, the mission got done that day thanks to the Reserve and my partnership with (Ford),” he said. “I was able to send all my people to the needed training, and the Reserve took over the entire flightline operation that day.”
“Everything we did was linked,” Wright added. “I don’t think we’ve ever argued.”
“You can say, we’ve refined the manner’s course,” chuckled Ford, who elaborated on their high-level of mutual respect for each other. “Being in an associate unit, like the 512th (AW), is like a marriage. If you don’t communicate, and you’re not open to it, it can be toxic.”
Ford said their relationship has been an awesome friendship, and he hated to see him go when Wright retired in 2014.
However, their separation was short lived.
Wright currently works as a civilian contractor repairing flight simulators at Dover AFB. Ford continues to serve the 512th AW as the superintendent of the 512th Maintenance Squadron.
They still try to cut each other off in parking lots and make faces at each other at stop lights, but these two chiefs from the same small town continue to serve the nation for 30 years and counting.