A family tradition: Grandfather, grandson maintain KC-135s

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. (AFNS) — Families often carry a profession through their generations. For Staff Sgt. Austin Phillips and his grandfather, they’ve helped maintain the aerial refueling mission.

Phillips, the 22nd Maintenance Squadron wheel and tire section chief, is assigned to the KC-135 Stratotanker, the same aircraft his grandfather once worked on nearly 60 years before.

Raymond Hopper, a retired staff sergeant, was a sheet-metal and hydraulics technician from 1960-66 in Smokey Hills Air Force Base, Kansas, and Walker AFB, New Mexico, where he worked on the KC-135, B-52 Stratofortress and on missiles.

“He is part of the reason I joined,” Phillips said. “Growing up, he was always on me to join the Air Force. As a kid I thought it was cool, and I wanted to serve my country.”

Phillips said his patriotism sparked when he worked on the family Angus cattle farm in a small town in Missouri with his grandfather.

“My grandpa lives and breathes patriotism and the Air Force,” Phillips said. “He loves his country, and it was engrained in me. Later, I realized the sacrifices that have been made by those before us, and I wanted to contribute to that. I love what we stand for.”

Phillips said he owes his work ethic to his family and attributes his mechanical knowledge to his grandfather, who shared his Air Force-style maintenance with him while working on tractors and hay equipment.

“He was teaching me how to fix a wheel and grease bearings when I was a teenager,” Phillips said. “Then I got here, and said, ‘I learned this a long time ago, and it is pretty much the same as the technical orders.”

The same techniques Hopper learned in the ‘60s that he taught his grandson could very well be used today on the same aircraft.

“It is a cool feeling to think that 60 years earlier my grandpa could have been working on the same aircraft as me,” Phillips said.

Their time spent together and memories they share that built their bond revolved around general maintenance and aircraft.

“He got me into aviation by taking me to airshows as a kid and always talking about history,” Phillips said. “Now he has a museum. He has all kinds of stuff: dioramas, uniforms, replicas, pieces of a P-51 Mustang, some B-29 Superfortress artifacts and a lot of vehicles. He loves aviation and the military.”

During an airshow, Phillips visited and sat in Fifi, the only flight-capable B-29. He recently performed a tire change on Doc, a B-29 that is currently being restored to join Fifi as the second flying Superfortress.

“(With Doc,) it all started when my grandpa and some of the guys from the museum came out here to see it when it was still in the hangar; that’s when I first met Doc,” the maintainer said.

The similarities between the two are beyond genetics. Hopper’s love of his country and interest in aviation continues with his grandson who, to this day, does his part to “refuel the fight” at McConnell AFB.

“I am very proud of him. He has done quite well, but there is always room for improvement,” Hopper said, chuckling. “He does a critical job and I think the military is the pride and strength of our country.”

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