Air Force pioneer gone, but not forgotten

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Pamela Derrow
  • USAFE Command Chief
The Air Force suffered a monumental loss March 11 when Paul W. Airey, first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, passed away. I think it appropriate to share with you my thoughts on this great American and Airman.

I will greatly miss my mentor, CMSAF Airey. From the day I first met him in 2002, I knew I would never meet a finer example of an American Airman; he projected a great presence and a sincere love of our Air Force and its Airmen. I remember hanging onto his every word as he spoke to the Kisling NCO Academy students at Kapaun Air Base, Germany. Several years later, as I was serving as the Air Force Senior NCO Academy commandant, I was still hanging onto his every word.

I learned more about being an Airman from him than any other person. One of the biggest lessons I learned from him was to always speak with candor. He told me that we ought to tell people what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear. He'd go on to say that candor should be provided with respect and professionalism. He never failed to ask me how I was doing and if he could help me better serve the Air Force and better take care of Airmen. And he always asked me in a way that always made me feel like I was the most important Airman.

He was always sincere and down to earth. I will never forget his sacrifices to our country, and I can only hope that by my words and actions I can continue to be an Airman that he would be proud of.

But, Chief Airey always left an indelible mark wherever he'd go. I'll never forget the mark he left on "my" Airman when the chief paused after receiving his lifetime achievement award from the Air Force Association and shook my son's hand and said, "thank you for your service young man."

These moments I personally cherish are but a small example of the impact Chief Airey had on all Airmen, regardless of rank. From the time he entered the Air Force after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 to when he retired in 1970 to his passing this month, Chief Airey spent a lifetime serving our nation and the Air Force with passion and zeal. He worked tirelessly to improve the welfare and development of the enlisted force and mentored many of today's Airmen.

As the first to hold the CMSAF position, Chief Airey worked tirelessly to get an Air Force-level Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy. He also had an impact on every enlisted Airman since his tenure as the CMSAF because he laid the foundation for the Weighed Airman Promotion System that we all have and will continue to use to become NCOs and senior NCOs. In retirement, Chief Airey continued to advocate airpower and champion the cause of the enlisted Airman. His legacy is the professional enlisted corps we have today and we're grateful for his leadership.

I think Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Rodney McKinley said it best, "When we speak of today's Airmen standing upon the shoulders of giants as they reach for the sky and star, it was upon Paul Airey's shoulders they stood. We will truly miss his leadership, counsel and friendship."

Chief Airey was more than a historic figure; he was a man who came along just when our Air Force needed him most. He not only accepted the great duties that came to him in time of war and when things looked bleak for our Air Force, but he did so with a personal flair and a deft touch that many have tried to emulate since. I understand why when Air Force leaders decided to create the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force position that Chief Airey was the man selected for the job. I'm sure if the chief were here today he would tell you he was in the right place at the right time, but I don't think that gives enough credit to how good the chief was as an Airman.

I ask all Airmen to take a moment to reflect on Chief Airey's contributions to our nation and our service, and continue to do your duty in a manner that would make him proud.