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Airman puts maintenance skills to use on motocross track

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jenna K. Caldwell
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. – He ran the motorcycle through a five-foot pool of water, wrecking the bike; everything he had worked for all his life seemed to be over.

Staff Sgt. Thomas Tangedal, 22nd Maintenance Squadron aircraft metal technology journeyman, was completing a practice run on a 150-mile loop in the desert outside of Las Vegas, three days before his first race.

The maintainer and his small race team had 72-hours to rebuild and repair the entire bike from the ground up on a limited budget—a seemingly impossible task.

Tangdal grew up in the motocross racing world, assiting friends and family as a pit crew member, helping them achieve their marathon goals. This was finally his chance, and he wasn’t just going give up that easily.

“There were times I wanted to put the bike back in the garage and be done with it,” said the Calexico, California, native. “But I knew I couldn’t do that. Having faith in yourself is what it is all comes down to. It’s a big mind game, hoping you did everything right and hoping that it’s all going to pay off.”

With a lot of hard work and little sleep, Tangedal and his team were able to get the bike ready in time for the race. He ended up taking fourth overall.

“It’s very similar to what I do at work every day,” said Tangedal. “Being that [the KC-135 Stratotanker] is 60 years old at this point, there are parts that break that are no longer in the supply or no longer supplied by Boeing. We’re always trying to figure out ways to make parts for this aircraft and make sure they won’t break again. It’s all about getting the mission done no matter what.”

Tangedal joined the Air Force in 2010. He has since learned and become proficient in fabrication for not only the Air Force but for his hobby as well. In 2016, he decided to start his own racing endeavors.

Tangedal rides a Honda CRF C-50X modified trailbike. Although he is the only one on the bike, a race is never a solo effort.

“My mom is my biggest supporter,” said Tangedal. “She’s like my dedicated crew chief. She’s the one who puts my pit books together and she’s the one who organizes all the hotels. She does a lot of hard work trying to get me ready for these races and making sure that everything is taken care of. Without her, I don’t know what I would do.”

Tangedal has learned how to lead people in the Air Force, and that benefits him beyond the maintenance world.

“The leadership skills he is learning [in the Air Force] apply to his race team and establish a positive attitude for the team to succeed,” said Jill Tangedal, Thomas’s mother. “He is very focused during the race and is great at communicating with the team to accomplish tasks. He is open to ideas from team members and works to have everyone participate in the strategy for his race.”

It takes an entire team from start to finish to complete a racing marathon. And just like in the military, not every job on the team is glamorous.

“It’s all different,” said Tangedal. “You could be the guy handing someone a sandwich or you could be the guy ripping a tire off and putting a new one on the vehicle. For two years, I was navigator in a car. Whenever something went wrong, it was my job to figure out how to fix the car and keep going. Every job is important.”

During a race, on an already-dangerous course, preventing accidents is imperative. Tangedal insists that staying hydrated and staying in communication with your team are of extreme importance.

“You can relate a lot of racing to the military,” said Tangedal. “It takes not only physical toughness, but mental toughness. On the track, it’s hot and it’s dusty. You’re probably not going to be able to breathe well, and you’re going to be sore. You have to be prepared. You have to be ready for the consequences and be ready for everything to possibly go wrong.”

When an Airman goes go downrange, lives are at stake. When a driver runs a motocross race, lives are at stake. While living in southern California before the Air Force, Tangedal participated in a lot of races in Mexico, where the rules are lax and the conditions of the race are hazardous and formidable.

“I’ve heard the calls over the radio that no one wants to hear,” said Tangedal. “There’s one dead motorcyclists on the course. There’s two dead on the course. There’s spectator dead on the course. Some things you just can’t prepare for, so at the end of the day, a good race is just a race that you finish and make it home safe.”

Whether he’s fabricating parts for a KC-135 on the line or racing through the dust on his bike in the desert, at the end of the day it’s all about one thing: getting the mission done and coming home safe.