Chief Master Sgt. Terry Keene kept the Air Force flying for three decades

Chief Master Sgt. Terry Keene’s primary duty during his 30 years in the military was keeping some of the most deadly airplanes in the U.S. Air Force’s arsenal ready for war.

He began his service as a teenage would-be aviation mechanic fresh out of Charlotte High School in Punta Gorda, Fla. in 1977. Keene retired three decades later as the Superintendent of the 3rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron based at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska.

During his time in the service he saw to it the General Dynamics F-111 “Aardvark” jet interdictor stayed in the air. Keene worked on or oversaw the maintenance of the McDonnell-Douglas F-15 “Eagle,” a tactical fighter with twin jet engines. The General Dynamics F-16 “Falcon” fighter was among the stable of airplanes he maintained. His final aircraft was Lockheed Martin’s F-22 “Raptor,” a state-of-the-art fighter-bomber that can do almost everything but talk.

He came from five generations of commercial net fishermen whose great-grandfather owned a fish house on Pine Island, north of Fort Myers. “When I decided to go in the service, about a year out of high school, I naturally thought the Navy was for me because I had spent my whole life around the water,” the 54-year old Port Charlotte resident explained.

“When I went to Venice to talk to the Naval recruiter he wasn’t there. I ended up talking to the Air Force recruiter. I signed up with the Air Force a few hours later.”

The picture on the wall of Keene’s office at the county complex in Englewood, where he works as a veterans service officer, shows an F-15 “Strike Eagle” jet fighter on the tarmac at Elmendorf Air Force Base outside Anchorage, Alaska.

“‘Strike Eagles’ were the aircraft sent in during ‘Desert Storm’ to take out Saddam Hussein’s SAM missal batteries before the B-52 (bombers) came in with ‘Shock and Awe,'” he explained. “These F-15s were surface-to-air missile killers. When the SAM batteries painted our aircraft with radar they’d take ’em out with rockets before the enemy fired their SAMs.

” It was Keene’s job as aircraft maintenance supervisor to keep these planes fighting.

 Chief Master Sgt. Terry Keene was a 1977 graduate of Charlotte High School. He spent his military career keeping an array of American fighter planes flying through war and peace. Photo provided

Chief Master Sgt. Terry Keene was a 1977 graduate of Charlotte High School. He spent his military career keeping an array of American fighter planes flying through war and peace. Photo provided

“At Quatar we were at a base on the other side of the runway from the international airport. We had about 1,100 folks living in a tent city working on aircraft,” he said. “On a bad day in Quatar it could be 130 degrees. They’d drag their tool box out to the flight line and work on the airplanes on a concrete pad in the desert without cover.”

Of all the airplanes he worked on during in three decades in the Air Force, the F-16 “Falcon” was the plane he said was easiest to repair.

“With its modular construction it was built for maintenance. You could replace a wing on an F-16,” Keene said. “It was an electronic wonder all computer-operated with 11 miles of wire to keep it going. It had a stick on the side to fly it with that only moved a quarter-inch.”

By the time he finished his last tour of duty he supervised maintenance of some 90 aircraft at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska. He also supervised 600 technicians who kept these planes airborne.

“Getting these people re-deployed with 12 aircraft was a big deal. It would take between 100 and 150 people to maintain a dozen planes,” Keene said.

“There was much more to it than just keeping the airplanes going. People had to be fed and you had to take care of their tools. It was the senior NCOs that took care of that sort of thing.” That was his job at the end of his career in the service.

It was a far cry from his first duty station at Patrick Air Force Base at Cape Canaveral, Fla. in the late ’70s and early ’80s. “I worked on OV-10s ‘Broncos,’ and O2s. They were little forward air control propeller-driven aircraft. They were used in Vietnam as target spotters. When an OV-10 pilot spotted a target he would fire a white phosphorous rocket into the ground nearby. Then the F-4 fighter-bombers would come in and bomb,” he said.

 F-111 "Aardvark" Original art courtesy of Lou Drendel/

F-111 “Aardvark” Original art courtesy of Lou Drendel/

F-15E "Strike Eagle"

F-15E “Strike Eagle”

 F-16 "Falcon"

F-16 “Falcon”

“It was the first jet airplane I repaired. My first day on the job I followed this staff sergeant around. At one point he needed something to stick under the wheel of this big F-111 to stop it from rolling. He grabbed my tool box and put it behind the wheel. It crunched it to pieces,” he recalled with a smile.

“There were times when I worked on special weapons-type aircraft capable of carrying an atomic bomb. I can’t tell you where I did this because this information is still classified.” Keene’s deployment to Kunsan Air Base in South Korea in 1998 was something different for him. He spent his time being the person responsible for the air base’s communication system.

“I was in charge of a handful of people who operated the radios at the base. We controlled all the flight lines. I was there for a year,” he said. “Then I went to Cannon Air Base in New Mexico. This is when we transitioned from the F-111 to the F-16.” It was his job to make the switch in fighters and keep them in the air at the same time. There was a big difference in these two fighters, but at least the F-16 was an easier airplane to maintain.

Pilots were something else they had to contend with. They were in a different world than the men and women who repaired their airplanes.

“Most of the senior pilots were very appreciative of what we did for them. There were others, however, who were totally focused on what they were doing and didn’t know we existed,” Keene said. “The pilots had no idea what we did to their aircraft.

All they knew was they got into a nice clean aircraft that we may have had in pieces the night before repairing it. A lot of work goes into maintaining one of these airplanes.” As time goes by each succeeding airplane is more complicated than the last one they worked on. This means it takes more skill, more knowledge and more effort in many instances, to keep them flying.

 It was a formal affair when Sgt. Terry Keene married his wife, Rolanda, on Valentine's Day 2001 on the tarmac at Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis, N.M. Photo provided

It was a formal affair when Sgt. Terry Keene married his wife, Rolanda, on Valentine’s Day 2001 on the tarmac at Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis, N.M. Photo provided

When Keene got hitched, he and Rolanda took their vows on the flight-line at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico on February 14, 2001. He was dressed in his best uniform. She wore a flowing white gown with a white veil. The newlyweds walked under crossed swords held by groomsmen clad in impeccable blue Air Force uniforms.

“The biggest thing in the military for me was the camaraderie. It doesn’t matter what branch of the service you’re in. You get a bunch of folks together working on a mission and you get pretty tight. I met an awful lot of good folks serving 30 years in the the Air Force,” Keene observed.

The couple has six children: Chris, Kathy, Kristen, Laura, Nic, and Mitchell. They also have a grandson, Jaxon, born on Father’s Day 2013, and three granddaughters, Hali, Hydi and Hayla.

Keene’s File

Keene at 54. Sun photo by Don MooreName: Terry Mitchell Keene
D.O.B: 5 Jan 1959
Hometown: Englewood, Fla.
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 21 April 1978
Discharged: 31 Aug 2008
Rank:  Chief Master Sergeant
Unit: 3rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron
Commendations: Meritorious Service Medal with 5 oak leaf clusters, Air Force Commendation Medal with 1 oak leaf cluster, Air Force Achievement Medal, AF Outstanding Unit Award with 7 oak leaf clusters, AF Good Conduct Medal with 8 oak leaf clusters, National Defense Service Medal with 1 service star, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Korean Defense Service Medal, AF Overseas Ribbon Longevity, AF Longevity Service with 6 oak leaf clusters, USAF NCO PME Graduate Ribbon with 1 oak leaf cluster, Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon (Rifle), AF Training Ribbon

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, June 24, 2013 and is republished with permission.

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