“My job is to kick E-8s in the ass.” — Chief Master Sergeant (E-9) Ralph Johns
My first assignment as a newly minted aircraft maintenance officer in early 1968 at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi Mississippi was essentially a training position as Officer in Charge of the Maintenance Analysis section. With a staff of about six or eight military and civilian analysts, plus several keypunch operators who entered thousands of daily aircraft maintenance records into the base computer via old-fashioned punch cards, we examined trends and equipment problems, produced reports on maintenance activities and budgets and made recommendations as required.
After about three months in that position, Lieutenant Colonel Slaughter, Chief of Maintenance, strolled into my cubicle late one Friday afternoon after everyone else had left and announced, “Scaramella: you're taking over Field Maintenance Monday morning.”
What? It came as a complete surprise. I was a green 24-year-old junior maintenance officer with no management experience, and no experience with the two dozen shops making up Field Maintenance and their activities, and yet I was suddenly faced with the daunting prospect of managing almost 300 military and civilian maintenance technicians.
“What happened to Major Traxler?” I asked.
Major Traxler was a seasoned grounded pilot who had been in charge of Field Maintenance.
“He’s retiring,” Colonel Slaughter brusquely replied.
“Isn’t Chief Master Sergeant Johns the Field Maintenance superintendent?”
Chief Master Sergeant Ralph Johns, who had been assigned to Field Maintenance a month earlier, had a widespread reputation throughout the maintenance organization as being one of the toughest, meanest, bluntest, and sharpest maintenance managers in the Air Force. And I was to become his boss?
“Yep. And he does a good job. Just don't fuck it up.”
And with that, Colonel Slaughter left my office.
The following Monday morning I walked into Chief Johns's spartan office with its beat up old gray desk, a telephone, a stack of legal pads, and five thinly padded gray steel chairs.
“Good morning, Chief.”
After a few introductory niceties, my curiosity kicked in. I had been thinking about meeting the legendary maintenance man all weekend.
I had heard that Major Traxler was an alcoholic, and I'd heard complaints that he was “ROAD” (retired on active duty) and that he seldom if ever responded to requests from outside organizations, whether it was quality control, maintenance analysis, the base safety office, or any other agency.
From my brief time in maintenance analysis, I hadn't seen a single piece of paper originating out of Field Maintenance. And Traxler had become a no-show at an increasing number of morning stand up status meetings.
I had also heard that Chief Johns had some history with Colonel Slaughter and Colonel Slaughter’s boss, Colonel Taylor, and I suspected that Major Traxler's departure might have been initiated by Chief Johns.
“By the way, Chief, did you have anything to do with Major Traxler's departure?”
Johns: “Could be.”
“So how long do you think I’ll last?”
“We'll see… sir.”
Over the next few weeks I found myself learning maintenance management from what I later came to appreciate as the Ralph Johns School of Management.
In the military, there are nine enlisted ranks from E-1 to E-9. In the mid-50s, the Air Force created what they call “super grades,” and phased out “warrant officers” former NCO’s who were promoted into officer-like jobs but without a formal commission.
Air Force NCO ranks range from E-4, Sergeant; E-5, Staff Sergeant; E-6, Tech Sergeant; E-7, Master Sergeant and the super-grades, E-8-Senior Master Sergeant, and E-9, Chief Master Sergeant.
Chief Johns was the sixth E-8 in the entire Air Force to be promoted to E-9: Chief Master Sergeant. He was very proud of that. He had 28 years of experience in aircraft maintenance, having enlisted originally in the Army during World War II. He used to joke that he made (Army) corporal six times. Johns had been such a wild character in his youth that he got into fistfights regularly and had been busted from Corporal to Private and then promoted to Corporal again six times before it stuck.
He could have passed for an old-fashioned heavyweight boxer at around 6-4 and 240 pounds with a Marine style cut brush cut.
He cast an imposing figure on everyone, both in maintenance and outside.
At the time I met him he was a couple of years from mandatory retirement at 30 years of service. Keesler would be his last duty assignment.
I once asked Sergeant Johns how he saw his job as maintenance superintendent.
“My job is to kick E-8s in the ass,” he grumbled.
Basically, the Johns approach was to make sure that supervisors and shop chiefs did their jobs. If supervisors did their jobs, then their subordinates did theirs and so forth down to the basic mechanic level. As far as I could tell it was a very effective management style.
For a minor example, one day I noticed some graffiti in the men’s room in the fabrication branch building (with sheet metal, welding, machine, paint and related shops).
“Did you see the graffiti in the men’s room, Chief?”
“Yes, sir. I had the shop chiefs clean it up.”
“What? Why? The shop chiefs didn’t have anything to do with the graffiti, did they?”
“It’ll stop,” replied Johns, looking at me like I was a too thick to understand.
It did. Johns knew that if the shop chiefs had to cleaned it up, they’d figure out who did it and how to stop it.
One of Chief Johns’s most impressive characteristics was his quick response to problems. The second he heard about any kind of problem (typically over the maintenance radio-monitor speaker in his office, or via a phone call from a shop chief), Johns was on it. He would jump out his chair and jog to wherever the problem was and start barking orders, usually demanding to see whichever shop chiefs or supervisors were involved. He would then summarize the problem for whoever was there, confirm with everyone what it was, fold his arms, and announce: “We’re going to stand here until this is solved, and I don’t want any finger-pointing.” Blaming the other guy was unacceptable. All of Field Maintenance’s supervisors knew this — you didn’t want a pissed off Chief Johns showing up in a shop or on the flight-line making demands. Best to solve problems before they got to him.
Johns also had an intimidating drill-sergeant mode that he engaged whenever the situation called for ass-chewing. He used it on everybody whenever necessary no matter what rank.
One day we were out on the flightline when a flight chief told us that Field Maintenance was going to have to do an “over-g” inspection because a pilot had punched off the g-meter before the flightline mechanic had a chance to look at.
The g-meter showed how high the g-forces (gravity) were on a given flight. Steep dives and pull-ups, for example, can put extra load on the wings and airframe. The g-meter had a re-set button that pilots were not supposed to touch. After each flight the flight mechanic would make a note of the g-reading and decide what to do. If the reading exceeded a certain amount then the airframe had been over-stressed and it had to be brought into the hanger for a thorough structural inspection to see if any damage had been done. The policy was that if a pilot re-set (“punched off”) the g-meter before the mechanic saw it, we had to assume that the pilot had screwed up and re-set it to cover up an in-flight problem — which meant a a time-consuming over-g inspection.
Chief Johns didn’t like having to take a plane out of service because a pilot punched off the g-meter.
“Who did that?” Chief Johns asked the flight-mechanic.
The mechanic pointed to a Lieutenant Colonel strolling back to the ops building.
“Sir!” Johns shouted, jogging over towards the Colonel.
I followed a short distance behind.
“Did you just punch off your g-meter, sir?”
“I guess so, Sergeant.”
“You asshole! Do you what we have to do now? We have to take this plane into the hangar and spend hours taking it apart and inspecting all the bolts and spars and so forth!”
“Sorry?! You’re sorry?!” Johns now had his nose right up in the pilot’s face. “How’d you like to come over and help?”
The pilot stood his ground. “I don’t think I’d be much help, Sergeant.”
“You pilots don’t give a shit what kind of work you cause us. I’m sick of it. Who’s your boss?”
“It was a simple mistake, Sergeant. I’m sorry. Really.”
“WHO’S YOUR BOSS?”
“Colonel Wilson, ops commander.”
“Come with me. We’re going to talk to him.”
“You’re over-reacting, Sergeant.”
“The hell I am! This kind of thing has to stop.”
“I won’t do it again, Sergeant. I get it.”
Johns replied, “I doubt it. But ok — sir.” (His voice was dripping with sarcasm on the word “sir.”) “But if I hear about this again with you I’m going to demand that Colonel Wilson ground you.”
“You won’t have to, Sergeant,” the pilot said and walked off.
As we were walking back to Johns’s office, the Chief had mostly calmed down.
“I hate officers,” he grumbled, “especially pilots. They don’t care how much crap they put on us.”
“Yeah, but don’t you think your treatment of the pilot might get you into trouble?”
“They won’t do anything to me,” Johns replied. “I have too many stripes on my arms and my belly’s too big. I stopped worrying about that years ago.”
(To be continued…)