KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
A WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft landed on the Keesler Air Force Base runway Monday and taxied to its parking spot in front of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron where a crowd watched the engines shut down and the propellers come to a slow halt.
Lt. Col. Troy “Bear” Anderson and Lt. Col. Valerie Hendry exited the aircraft and were promptly blasted with a fire hose, a tradition for aircrew members who’ve completed the last, or “fini,” flight of their career.
They were soon swarmed by colleagues, friends and family who thanked them for their service and wished them well on their retirements this week. Both members will embark on new journeys, closing out a chapter of their lives more than 30 years in the making. Anderson, a pilot with more than 30 years of service all in the weather reconnaissance mission, hit his 10,000th flying hour Sept. 21 and has flown through the eye of a hurricane 333 times. Hendry is an aerial reconnaissance weather officer with 34 years of service, has 7,766 flight hours, and 322 hurricane penetrations.
“Both are consummate professionals with a wealth of knowledge, something the unit will have a hard time replacing,” said Lt. Col. Shane Devlin, 53rd WRS director of operations.
“Bear,” as all unit members call him, started his Air Force career in 1979 attending the Air Force Academy and was a member of their rodeo team. He was a bull rider. He said he never won a buckle, but it was a lot of fun. He traded in his spurs for wings and became a C-130 pilot in 1983.
“As a kid I’d watch thunderstorms build up overhead, and I wanted to go up there,” said Anderson. He did that and more as a Hurricane Hunter pilot.
His first assignment was with the then active duty unit, the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, at Keesler. It was within his first few years at the squadron when he earned his nickname.
He went bear hunting in Siberia in 1986, and came back with a 9-foot, 7-inch bear rug, which he still has today.
“We had a guy in the squadron named ‘Dog,’ and he started calling me ‘Bear’,” said Anderson.
Dog was then Capt. Doug Romig. He was a pilot in charge of ordering the name tags worn on the flight suit and gave Anderson his name in honor of his hunting trip.
“My name tag had ‘Bear Anderson’ on it so then everyone started calling me Bear,” he said.
Bear flew with the 53rd WRS until 1991 when the unit shut down. He had a two-year break and then joined the Air Force Reserve in 1993 flying with the then 815th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, now the 815th Airlift Squadron which flies tactical airlift. Within a few months, he said the weather mission converted to the 53rd WRS, which was re-activated into the Air Force Reserve, becoming the only military unit in the world to fly weather reconnaissance, collecting meteorological data sent to the National Hurricane Center in Miami to assist them with their storm warnings and forecasts. He has flown with the unit as a reservists and Air Reserve Technician since, amassing 10,000 hours in various models of the C-130 to include the H and J models.
Anderson is known to be a man of few words, but squadron members had a lot to say about him. He is frugal, owning only two trucks his entire career, still uses his original headset from the 90s, and has had only one cell phone, a go-phone a co-worker purchased for him in 2008 so he could text message him. Anderson reimbursed the person for the phone and still uses it today.
“If everyone was like Bear, there wouldn’t be any national debt,” said Lt. Col. Jon Fox, 53rd WRS navigator, who has worked with Anderson for more than 20 years.
Anderson is also a traditionalist. In an era of I-Pads and electronic publications and technical orders aircrew are required to take on missions, he prefers the old way of doing business.
“I think he may be the last pilot in the Air Force to carry paper pubs and a pencil you have to sharpen,” said Maj. Ivan Deroche, 53rd WRS pilot adding that Anderson has a pencil sharpener on his desk.
As much as he is considered a character, he is also respected. Bear is known to be an outstanding pilot -- one who is smart, talented, level headed and always does the right thing, according to fellow squadron members.
“I love flying with him because he is a mission hacker; he just gets it done; the mission comes first,” said Maj. John Brady, 53rd WRS ARWO.
“We are going to have to hire five pilots to replace him with as much as he flies,” said Fox.
He is also a teacher.
“When with a student, he will work as long as it takes to ensure that student has a grasp on what is being covered, even if that means doing something over and over again until he is satisfied,” said Maj. Byron Hudgins, 53rd WRS pilot.
Anderson, who joined the Air Force during the Cold War, is patriotic. He was known to carry copies of the constitution and hand them out to new unit members. He also said that everyone should read the first three sentences of the Declaration of Independence.
“We need to realize that we won the lottery when we were born in this country,” he said.
As he finishes the final chapter of his Air Force career, he said there will be things he will miss: flying, being part of a crew and the teamwork. Upon retirement he plans to make a road trip to Texas, but isn’t sure yet about his long-term plan. His parting advice to fellow Airmen is summed up in a quote by Albert Schwietzer, theologian, musician, philosopher and physician, “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”
Another long and successful career was highlighted in a retirement ceremony Tuesday for Lt. Col. Valerie Hendry, who is called ‘Val’ by her friends. She joined the Air Force in 1983 upon graduating from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and was commissioned through their ROTC program in January 1982.
“When I first came into the Air Force … I cried that first night, asking myself, ‘what have I done? I just signed away four years of my life,’’ she said. “I couldn’t imagine how I was going to make it, and now its 34 years later. It’s been wonderful.”
Her career began at Travis Air Force Base, California, where she was a base weather forecaster and a wing weather officer. During her three years there she also competed in the National Underwater Hockey Tournament and earned a private pilot’s license at the Aero Club.
She then moved to Keesler where she worked at Detachment 1, 7th Weather Wing, as an ARWO for the Hurricane Hunters and was storm qualified within five months. She flew as an augmentee with the 54th WRS in Guam logging more than 500 hours in her first year. It was there where she flew her first solo storm mission as a fully qualified ARWO, Super Typhoon Dot near the Philippines. It was the strongest storm of the 1985 season.
Hendry said that it was the worst turbulence she had ever experienced in her 30 seasons of hurricane hunting.
In 1988, she was assigned to Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, and worked at the 7th Weather Wing at the Military Airlift Command. In 1991, she took part in Operation Desert Storm serving as the base weather station commander. After that deployment she was moved to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii and was the last commander of Hickam Base Weather.
She left active duty in 1993 and became a reservist with the 403rd Wing, flying with the 53rd WRS. She commuted from Hawaii to Mississippi for two years until she took a full-time job with the unit as an Air Reserve Technician in 1995. She held a variety of positions within the squadron and trained more than 40 ARWOs in her 21 years with the unit.
One of those ARWOs is Maj. Eileen Bundy.
“Momma ARWO is what I call her,” she said. “When you are on a check flight, you just don’t want to disappoint her because she’s put so much time and effort into you.”
Brady feels the same.
“She is like a mom to me,” he said. “During a check ride I didn’t want to let her down.”
There are only 20 ARWOs in the Air Force, and they are all at Keesler so the training is done in-house. The weather officer acts as the flight director in a storm environment, continuously monitoring the data provided by aircraft sensors. The ARWO checks this data for accuracy and use this information to guide the crew to the center of the storm. During a tropical storm or hurricane, crews can fly through the eye of a storm four to six times. During each pass through the eye, crews release a dropsonde, which collects temperature, wind speed, wind direction, humidity and surface pressure data. The crew also collects surface wind speed and flight level data. All of this information is sent to the NHC.
Throughout their careers, both Anderson and Hendry have penetrated the eye of a hurricane, known as a “penny,” more than 300 times. They are members of a short list of Hurricane Hunters who are part of the 300 Club, recognizing those flyers with the most “pennies.”
Anderson and Hendry retire Friday. Lt. Col. Keith Gibson, 403rd Wing deputy commander, said, “That’s a ton of experience walking out the door.”
Hendry replied, “You are not going to have too many people with more than 30 years in this job.”
However, she said most people learn the majority of their job duties within the first three years.
Having trained many of the personnel in the unit, Hendry and Anderson said they leave knowing the squadron is in good hands.