By RANDY ROUGHTON
When Bobby Pierce was learning to sew during his Air Force technical training in 1955, he never imagined he would still be teaching the skill to Airmen in his fabrication shop six decades later.
Pierce, or “Mr. P,” as he’s known in the 437th Aircrew Flight Equipment Fabrication Shop at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, quickly made an impression on Tech. Sgt. Rico Kones when he arrived in 2001. Almost immediately, Mr. P became the person Kones looked to for guidance and information. Kones credits the veteran with teaching him how to sew, which Pierce continues to do with the shop’s Airmen.
“Mr. P is an inspiration to us all,” said Kones, an aircrew flight equipment special projects coordinator. “He is in his 80s, and he is still working here in the shop, lifting heavy rolls of fabric and working out daily on his lunch break. Mr. P greets us all here daily with a smile and asks us, ‘How are you doing today?’ Although this is one of the busiest shops in (Air Mobility Command), Mr. P is always personable with the civilian members and GIs. He treats us all like family.”
Pierce is the senior of 10 civilian employees in the shop who represent more than 300 years of experience. It is one of the Air Force’s few fabrication shops still producing all fabric-related items for aircraft. Every two years, the material in each of the base’s 50 C-17 Globemaster IIIs must be refurbished or replaced.
Employees use sheepskin to make custom cockpit seat covers Pierce calls “butt covers,” and also refurbish armrest and headrest covers, bunk cushions, heavy bunk curtains made of fire-resistant fabric and heavy-duty straps. The straps must be done on Big Bertha, the only one of the shop’s five sewing machines that can handle heavier materials. They even embroider the active-duty and reserve wing logos, along with the JB Charleston logo, into certain items so all C-17 passengers will know where the work was done.
Some shop specialists compare the work to NASCAR mechanics. In both cases, people just take the end products for granted, without considering the work that went into them, Pierce said.
“If a NASCAR driver does really well, people think he was great, but they don’t know what went into that car, the work that was done on that car to put him into position to win,” he said. “But everything had to be perfect in that car for him to win. But how was it perfect? People see things like seat covers and think they magically appeared. They don’t think about the work that went into them. They just see them and don’t know the story behind them.”
Each morning, Pierce arrives at the shop early at 5:30 and makes coffee. He checks his emails and reads the newspaper over his breakfast before his shift begins an hour later. It’s a routine that has served him well since his first day on the job in 1986.
During those three decades, Pierce has witnessed the reorganization in 2007 that combined survival and equipment with aircrew life support. He’s also seen his share of other changes, such as when an Air Mobility Command commander’s ride on a C-17 led to a switch to a more comfortable bunk rest cover.
“In the early days of the C-17, Gen. (Walter) Kross rode on the aircraft and was displeased with the bunk rest cover,” Pierce said. “So it was changed to one that was much more comfortable for crew members to rest on.”
Before basic training in 1955, Pierce was selected as a parachute rigger. He learned to sew, along with parachute preparedness and inspection skills, during 16 weeks of technical training at Chanute Air Force Base, Illinois.
His first assignment was at the former Hunter Air Force Base, Georgia, a Strategic Air Command installation; followed by Castle Air Force Base, California; Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, and Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina. He retired as a master sergeant in 1975 and chose to continue in the aircrew flight equipment field, first at Shaw, before he moved to his current shop 11 years later.
The one constant throughout his military and civilian careers has been his love of sewing.
“The one thing about sewing is, it’s relatively a clean job,” Pierce said. “You don’t have mud and grease on your clothes normally. Also, it’s an inside job. You have air conditioning in the summer, and in the wintertime, you don’t have to be out in the elements. If you enjoy sewing, it’s kind of an art, a task in which you sew a piece of material to make it into an end item, like a cushion cover, or even a dress or pair of pants. You can do a lot of things with sewing.”
The one thing the fabrication shop does best with sewing is save the Air Force money, about $1.25 million annually, on refurbished and locally manufactured items, said Scott Lewis, an aircrew flight equipment foreman. One of the items where a big chunk of the savings is made is in heads-up display covers. The covers cost about $2,500, but the shop makes them for $150-175 each. This savings adds up to about $40,000 on each C-17, or up to about $1 million a year.
Even when the workload eases up somewhat, there is still plenty to do. This is when they get ready for the next aircraft due for refurbishing.
“We have to keep a supply of items on hand so we can change them right away and can get it back ASAP,” Pierce said. “So when things are a little slack, we make extra seat covers, bed rest covers, and we sew extra straps to make sure we have some spare sets ahead to take care of them whenever they come in. All we have to do then is strip them off and put our new covers on. We always have something to do ahead of time. To have a few extra sets really helps us out in the long run.”
At 80 years and with almost 60 years of combined federal and military service, Pierce has no plans to retire. That suits the others in the shop just fine. They’ve grown accustomed to seeing his smiling face and carrying large pieces of fabric as if they were a few pieces of notebook paper.
“I’ve worked around a lot of older people in my career,” Kones said. “They talk about when they retire, they will go home with nothing to do. They need a mission to accomplish to keep them going. He has one.
“He’s the oldest in the shop, but we look at him as our Hercules because you will see him carrying around 25-pound fabric on one shoulder. Mr. P is the backbone of our section. He’s back there day in and day out, making sure our aircraft are looking good.”
But perhaps another lasting legacy Pierce will eventually leave the shop will be his role in inspiring another generation of mentors who are willing to go the extra mile for their own Airmen. Kones considers himself in that category.
“One of the biggest lessons that Mr. P has showed me about the shop and my career is that I am a leader, and it is my duty to ensure that the mission is getting accomplished and that my people are taken care of,” Kones said. “He showed me that if you take care of your people, they will take care of you. If you are there just working your people with no gratification, they will work because they have to for the paycheck. But if you show them that they matter, and that they are doing a good job, they will go that extra mile because of you.”