Love for flying kept last KC-135 flight engineer flying for decades

Master Sgt. Robert Self, 370th Flight Test Squadron, following his final flight Jan. 18. (U.S. Air Force photo by Christopher Higgins)

Master Sgt. Robert Self, 370th Flight Test Squadron, following his final flight Jan. 18. (U.S. Air Force photo by Christopher Higgins)

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- After a career that has spanned almost four decades, the last Air Force flight engineer for the KC-135 Stratotanker is set to retire at Edwards.

Master Sgt. Robert Self joined the U.S. Marine Corps in November 1978 and will wrap up his military career next month as a full-time Air Force Reservist with the 370th Flight Test Squadron.

With 34 and a half years of military time, 26 on active duty, Self has had a diverse set of assignments. He said the love of flying is what has kept him going, but with advances in technology, the role of flight engineer has been decreasing over several aircraft platforms.

“The flight engineer runs the fuel panel, watches the systems and is a technical advisor to all the pilots,” said Self. “Maybe 15 years ago they had a flight engineer on the KC-135 and even a navigator. But over the years the technology has improved and the systems in the airplane have gone to computers, so they have taken engineers and navigators out.”

He first became interested in aviation in the Marines when he was a helicopter crew chief stationed in Hawaii. After a four-year term, he returned to his birthplace of Rhode Island to complete college. But the urge to fly brought him back to the military. He joined the R.I. Army National Guard where he served as an aero scout observer and helicopter mechanic. He would fly in OH-6 Hughes Cayuse Light Observation Helicopters as a “flying sergeant.”

“We would fly really low with the doors off. We would pop up, radio coordinates to artillery and pop back down. I would have stayed (with that unit). That’s beautiful flying. I loved it.”

But as Self would see – and what would become a common theme in his career – changes in the military every few years would change his role, too. The unit in Rhode Island was inactivated, so Self went back to Hawaii to continue flying in OH-6s.

“But then special operations took them – took all the OH-6s and painted them black. So, I’m out of a job.”

Self said the Army also eliminated the flying-sergeant career field to make way for junior officers to fly in the second seat of OH-6s.

He then became an Air Force Reserve C-5 Galaxy mechanic at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, which had a sister unit at Travis Air Force Base, California, that had C-5 flight engineers. He trained to be a C-5 flight engineer and managed to stay in Hawaii. But after some time, his unit at Travis AFB wanted him to come to California. To remain in Hawaii, he took a part-time Air National Guard position at a unit that had C-130s at Hickam. He became a trained flight engineer in the C-130 Hercules.

“Then that unit went away and got C-17s, and they don’t have flight engineers. After that, I started a new life and became a full-time reservist with the Big Crow program at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, working as a KC-135 flight engineer.

Big Crow is the name of two NKC-135 test-bed aircraft, which are heavily-modified KC-135s used for electronic warfare testing. These planes were also used as a target simulator for testing the Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser.

“Every time I switched aircraft I had to go back to school for training. I went to school for the NKC-135. Then they closed down the Big Crow program, and I had to go back to C-130s at Rhode Island and at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado,” Self said.

Unfortunately for Self, every time he changed units he had to lose a rank in order for his new unit to administratively accept him.

“I’ve had four stripes taken off. So, after all these units closed down, I would apply to a new unit. They would say, ‘Oh we can’t take you unless you take a stripe off.’ I loved flying that much, that I don’t mind taking a stripe off.”

While deployed overseas, Self got a message that would ultimately bring him to Edwards in November 2013. Since he was qualified to be a flight engineer in the C-130 and KC-135, he would have a job working on the Speckled Trout program, which used KC-135s.

“The Air Force called me and said you have all these qualifications, we can use you here. When I got here, the (Speckled Trout) program closed down and there was no testing for the C-130 anymore. So they made me a KC-135 tanker flight engineer.”

Self has reached his high tenure of service, and it’s time for him to retire. He had his final flight Jan. 18 and is taking the rest of his leave before officially retiring in March. Self said he plans on staying in the local area and may continue to work at Edwards as a civilian.