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The retiring KC-10 pilot who retired the first KC-10

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Sean Evans
  • 514th Air Mobility Wing

JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. -- On Monday, July 13, the 514th Air Mobility Wing bid farewell to the first of three KC-10 Extenders from the Air Force’s backup-aircraft inventory to be retired during fiscal year 2020, holding a ceremony with the 305th AMW to honor the historic occasion. 

This same week, the 514th is also bidding a fond farewell to the pilot who delivered that KC-10 to the “Boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.

Lt. Col. Mike Pillion, 514th Operations Support Squadron’s chief of KC-10 Extender current operations, joined the Air Force in 1984 and joined the 514th AMW in May of 1999. 

“It was an opportunity,” Pillion said. “Something I’ve seen in previous assignments working with the Reserve is that they are held to the same standards as the active duty and I haven’t seen any differences on the flight deck, our standards are the same.”

Pillion’s history with the KC-10 Extenders began in 1989. Having started as a helicopter pilot, he earned his fixed-wing qualification and included the KC-10 on his dream sheet of aircraft to pilot. 

“I chose it because it had a multi-role mission: tanker, receiver, cargo, passengers,” Pillion said. “It did a lot more than some other airplanes.”

Since becoming a KC-10 pilot, Pillion has witnessed the KC-10 program undergo significant changes as it continued providing a wide array of mission essential capabilities.

“I’ve seen avionics changes and upgrades to the KC-10’s which brought us more into the digital world,” Pillion said. “When Strategic Air Command took possession of them, their idea of a multi-role capability continued when it transferred to Air Mobility Command – moving fighters, cargo, refueling the bombers and cargo airplanes to get them to destinations without having to land.”

It is worth noting that Pillion’s upcoming retirement is not because of a personal decision to move on from the Reserve; he turns 60 this coming Saturday, July 18, which places restrictions on military service. 

“If I had the opportunity I would definitely would want to stay in longer and it’s not just that I love the KC-10 and what it does, I love the people in the 514th,” said Pillion. “They are amazing. The cross-section of what they do in the civilian world and how they bring that experience to us is incredible and I am thrilled to work with them and to continue to do that as the KC-46’s arrive would be a lot of fun.”

It is appropriate that Lt. Col. Pillion, who has served more than 35 years and logged more than 5,085 hours in the KC-10, had his final flight on the final flight of the first KC-10 to retire, piloting the aircraft himself. 

“I feel very fortunate that I was able to fly this airplane to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base,” said Pillion. “The end of the KC-10 and the end of Mike Pillion’s career is just a chapter. I’m going to go on and do other things. As for the aircraft, they’re going to take parts off of it and keep other things flying.”

During the KC-10’s send-off ceremony, the 514th AMW’s commander, Col. Pemberton praised Pillion’s contributions to the Freedom Wing.

“I want to ensure we recognize his efforts for what they are – selfless, excellent, and honest,” Pemberton said. “He won’t tell you this or expand on his hours or accolades, he’ll only smile and bask in the moment knowing he provided his guidance and aviator skills to hundreds of KC-10 aircrews, developing the force for more than 30 years.” 

Pillion’s impact within the 514th, as noted by Pemberton, is not only reflected in how many hours he has flown but is reflected in the Airmen he has served with. 

“I hope my legacy is what I taught people,” said Pillion. “If I leave that behind and they stay safe – if they get the mission done and they get to go home to their families because of things that I taught them – then I feel pretty good about walking away.”

Pillion offered advice to those dedicated Airmen who likewise intend to stretch their military service as far as possible. 

“If you love your job, keep doing it. Challenge yourself and don’t stop learning so you don’t just get stuck in the old way,” Pillion said. “If you can have fun and you continue to learn then great. If you are doing something that is not fun, then find something else that is or try to make it fun.”

The Freedom Wing has been an extended family of sorts for Pillion, who has been thrilled to watch the people of the 514th grow and evolve throughout his service here. 

“In the 514th, I really feel this family attitude where you walk into the clinic or military pay and it’s a family, they want to help you,” Pillion said. “It’s really unique. We see people grow, we see them mature, and we see them in good and bad times because of the length of time we stay together.”

“That is the foundation for our wing and our society: good people doing good things,” he continued. “The neat thing about the 514th is that we have good people doing extraordinary things every day.”

“Thank you, Lt. Col. Pillion,” said Pemberton. “Thank you to all the KC-10 crews for your professional airmanship and most importantly, your service.”