By Tech. Sgt. Ray Bowden
21st Space Wing Public Affairs
Paul W. Airey, the first chief master sergeant of the Air Force, died March 11 in Panama City, Fla. at the age of 86.
If becoming the first Airman to attain the Air Force’s highest enlisted position was not a laudable enough achievement for some, Chief Airey’s life was filled with many other accomplishments: helping create the Weighted Airman Promotion System, advocating for an Air Force senior noncommissioned officer academy, and improving low retention during the Vietnam War, to name a few.
While each of these endeavors stands on their own merit, some local chief master sergeants believe Chief Airey’s greatest accomplishment was the imprint he left on the lives of other Airmen
“When you talk about a lifetime of contributions, you say it thinking of Paul W. Airey” said Chief Master Sgt. Gerardo Tapia, 10th Mission Support Squadron superintendent. “I tell all of my Airmen that we owe our respect and admiration to those who served before us, who paved they pay”
Chief Tapia found himself in close contact with numerous former chief master sergeants of the Air Force while serving as special assistant to the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force in Washington D.C,
“I had the incredible privilege of spending lots of time with many former chief master sergeants of the Air Force,” he said. “He’s the only person I know of to receive an immediate and rousing standing ovation at the mention of his name [from] officer and enlisted alike.
This response is no doubt due to the dedication the Chief Airey demonstrated while serving his country: the Chief enlisted in the Army Air Forces after the attack on Pearl Harbor and began his career as arial gunner protecting B-24 Bombers. While flying over Europe in 1944 as a newly promoted technical sergeant, the aircraft was shot down and Sergeant Airey found himself a prisoner of war. Later still, as Allied forces marched toward the prison camp, Sergeant Airey and his fellow 6,000 POWs were forced to march 400 miles to another camp near Berlin.
After surviving this ordeal, Chief Airey served in the Korean Conflict, earned the Legion of Merit Medal, served as a first sergeant for 12 years and ultimately found himself appointed to the Air Force’s highest enlisted position in 1967, the year Chief Master Sgt. Suzette Cherry, Air Force Space Command Commander Support Staff superintendent, was born.
According to Chief Cherry, Chief Airey was, and is, a “role model.”
“He never completed high school, but he earned his high school equivalency certificate through off-duty study and eventually earned an associated degree, proving it’s never too late to pick yourself up, dust off and finish what you started,” she said.
Chief Cherry said that Chief Airey’s efforts on behalf of the Air Force’s enlisted force led to Airmen having the opportunity to compete against their peers for their next stripe.
“Airey and a team of specialists worked to develop a new program which would lay the foundation for the Weighted Airmen Promotion System,” she said.
Chief Master Sgt. Timothy Omdal, 21st Space Wing command chief, said Chief Airey was an advocate and advisor for all Airmen.
“Anyone serving in the Air Force and especially those with chevrons on their sleeves owes a dept of gratitude to Chief Airey as he forged the path that all enlisted Airmen now walk upon,” he said.
After retiring from active duty on Aug. 1, 1970, Chief Airey served the Air Force in a variety of civilian roles: Air Force Association chapter president, AFA president, Air Force Memorial Foundation member and Air University Foundation member.
“Think about this: Chief Airey retired in 1970, yet he continued to serve our enlisted corps for another 40 years,” said Chief Master Sgt. Michael Parris, 21stt Communications Squadron superintendent. “He gave an absolute full measure of devotion to a family he loved very much – our United States Air Force.”
According to Chief Master Sgt. Tim Omdal, 21st Space Wing command chief, Chief Airey worked hard to impress upon the general public that enlisted Airmen truly were the backbone of the Air Force.
“Chief Airey let the public, Congress, and the officer corps know that Air Force NCOs are nothing less than a well-trained team of professionals,” said Chief Omdal. “We continue to feel his influence today and I hope we all strive to do his legacy proud.”