In January 1975, the music of Elton John and Barry Manilow topped the music charts. The Waltons, All in the Family and The Jeffersons were popular television shows, and Gerald Ford was president of the United States.
That same month, a 23-year-old man from Pennsylvania joined the Air Force and began a three-decade-long career that took him to many places in the world on his journey to becoming a chief.
Donald Robinson served in the Air Force from 1975 to 2005. At 23, he was ready for a change that would lead him in a new direction.
“I’d been working mostly construction jobs for five years and decided I needed a change,” he said. “I was laid-off from my last job, so I went to see a recruiter and took the test. I felt there was good training and opportunities for advancement as long as I did what was required, so I enlisted.”
The majority of his career —1975 to 1991 — was during the Cold War when the world was often on the edge of nuclear war and tensions were felt around the world.
An experience early in his career inspired this young crew chief with a sense of profound patriotism.
“I didn’t know what deep patriotism meant until an incident in Korea,” Robinson said. “I was at George Air Force Base, California. We were tasked with loading weapons onto aircraft as a show of force. This experience taught me the real meaning of patriotism. I realized that being in the military wasn’t a nine-to-five job.
“We were ready to go to war and tasked with a show of force of U.S. military might,” he said.
After George AFB, he crossed the Atlantic to Upper Heyford Air Base, England, for a two-year assignment, which began an 11-year period of back-and-forth assignments between there and Cannon AFB, New Mexico.
The first stop in England was quite a memorable one, Robinson recalls.
“I arrived at Upper Heyford Tuesday, and a major exercise was set to start the following day. I hadn’t signed in at my new base and everywhere I looked, I saw people with gas masks, chemical protection suits and helmets. At the time, I was not aware of the exercise.
“It was a serious and heavy-duty exercise, which involved convoying with nuclear weapons,” he said. “Although the nukes were training weapons, actual war was simulated, and every aircraft capable of flying was ready to go. A major part of the exercise was dropping simulated nukes.”
After two years in England, Robinson went to Cannon AFB to work on F-111D and E models. As was common during the Cold War, it was a high-tempo atmosphere.
“We simulated deploying to forward-operating bases. I was there for 11 months, and we were busy daily.”
It was at Cannon, Robinson decided to make the Air Force a career.
It was back to Upper Heyford AB for round two, but the tour lasted six years — 1979 to ‘85. Along with the assignment came more rank and responsibility.
“I was promoted to staff and technical sergeant while at Heyford,” he said. “I was more engaged with my higher rank and had a variety of jobs, which included crew chief, maintenance training instructor and senior controller.”
Attention to detail was a must. It was vital Airmen knew how to do their job.
“There were two people at all times to provide checks and balances because we were responsible for the aircraft,” he said. “We would watch each other in order to prevent mistakes.”
Robinson considers his time in England as special.
“My years in England provided me with an unforgettable experience,” he said. “The Brits had so much respect for us. It was a family oriented atmosphere. I recall a time when my car broke down, and I was walking to the base and almost immediately a town person picked me up and drove me to the base.”
Then it was time to return to Cannon AFB for a trio of years, where he was promoted to master sergeant, and then he was off to another part of the world for a completely different type of assignment
“I went to Izmir, Turkey, for a NATO assignment from 1988 to 1991,” he said. “It wasn’t on a base, but there was a recreation center, hospital, school and other support services. Izmir was a safe place to live at that time.”
However, when Operation Desert Storm launched in 1991, terrorism activity increased and it was no longer safe sending him back to Cannon working on F-111 aircraft and then on to Kadena Air Base, Japan, where he was promoted to chief master sergeant and then to Luke in 2003 for his swan song. Robinson’s career afforded him the opportunity to work on a plethora of aircraft, which included the F-105, F-111, F-15, F-16 and AWACS.
He hung up the uniform in 2005 with three decades of service.
However, it wasn’t a typical laid-back retirement for him. He worked short stints at Lowes, Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Post Office, before joining Veterans Affairs, where he has been for a decade, continuing to serve his country.