Name: Nicholas C. Billow
Company: Nellis AFB, Nevada
Location: Lewiston, Idaho
"As a member of the Thunderbirds, Staff Sgt Nicholas C Billow, Aerospace Ground Equipment Craftsman, is a cut above the rest. No one is assigned to the Thunderbirds at any level. There is an application and interview process for every candidate and there are many considered. Few make the cut. The people who make the team have earned a level of distinction that ensures the integrity of the Thunderbirds and the air show performance at all levels." — Gerry Proctor, Air Force News Agency Public Relations
How did you get into Aviation Ground Equipment (AGE)?
AGE was the job I selected when I entered the Air Force. I enlisted on January 12, 2000.
How do the Thunderbirds' ground operations differ from ordinary AGE maintenance?
In many ways the job is exactly the same as the regular Air Force. together with two other AGE personnel, I maintain 45 pieces of non-powered and 15 pieces of powered AGE equipment. I am also responsible for servicing the aircraft with 10-10 oil which is used to create the smoke in the demonstration. And currently I am assigned as the No.4 Assistant Dedicated Crew Chief. In this position I perform all aspects of crew chief responsibilities as well as performing in the ground ceremony during air shows.
Many apply to be a Thunderbirds team member, few make the cut. How does one become a team member?
There is a lot that is taken into account when an applicant is going through the hiring process. The most important is past job performance. This is displayed through performance reports and letters of recommendation. Awards and decorations along with physical fitness are elements that are looked at prior to being hired to the team. The Thunderbirds are looking for well-rounded airmen and women.
Is it difficult to work on the fly without a shop during the demonstrations?
Everywhere I have been I have received outstanding support from the local area. If we are at a civilian show site we are usually supported by a base nearby or a state guard unit. With all that great support it makes it easy to do my job on the road. Though there have been times when I have had to be creative and improvise to get what I need.
What are your responsibilities on the day of the demonstration?
I provide equipment for the crew chiefs to service and get the jets ready for the day. This is usually a Dash 60 and self-generating nitrogen cart. Then the crew chiefs will do a coordinated engine run to ensure the jets are ready for the pilots to jump in and take off. After the engine run I tow two spare aircraft, one to each end of the runway. This is done so if one of the demonstration jets breaks we can use one of the spares without the crowd seeing. About the time I am done doing that the jets are taking off for the demo. While the demo is taking place I am preparing my smoke oil equipment to service the jets after the demo. I then provide swing shift with the AGE they may require to perform maintenance. My vanmates, who are Mobile Operations Chiefs (MOCs) and support, are then ready to go back to the hotel. Then we do it again the
How has your commitment to the USAF affected your family life?
I am married with three kids. My wife and I met while we were in technical training school. I am active duty and at that time she was assigned to the Hawaii Guard as an AGE troop. We got married and she transferred to the Air Reserve Unit at Beale AFB, Calif., were we spent five and a half years. While at Beale I was deployed three times. The first was after 9/11 to Al Dahfra AB, UAE. This deployment was hard on the family because my oldest daughter, Cameo, was born 9/17 and I left when she was just two weeks old. My wife is extremely supportive and always encouraged me while I am away. My next two deployments were to Prince Sultan AB, Saudi Arabia and Cyprus. My family is the most important thing in my life and they motivate me to do the very best I can do.
What has been your most exhilarating experience while enlisted?
Many exciting things have happened to me throughout my career, but nothing has compared to being selected as the No. 4 (note: No.4 Thunderbird F-16 — every Thunderbird F-16 wears a position tail mark) Assistant Crew Chief. Not only do I get the opportunity to represent the entire squadron on the showline, I get to represent the 530,000 men and women in the Air Force that are out on the front lines doing their job to defend this country that don't get to be seen or heard. I am honored to represent them to the American public.
How has your involvement with the Thunderbirds prepared you for the future?
Being in the AGE career field, we are sometimes a bit separate from the flightline operations. This squadron lets me see a lot about the flightline that I have not had the chance to see before. I think I will be able to take a lot from what I have learned for when I make master sergeant or even technical sergeant and perform functions such as quality assurance or production superintendent.
What major awards/decorations have you received?
I was Airman of the Quarter for the 9th MXS at Beale. I was Airman of the month for the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, which prepared me to win Airman of the Quarter for the Squadron and the 363rd Expeditionary Maintenance Group. I have one achievement medal and Air Force Good Conduct with one Oak leaf.
If not in AGE where would you be?
I plan on staying in the AGE field but if I had to choose another job I would say F-16 crew chief. I only say this because of my experience here on the Thunderbirds. I love being a mechanic and I think I would enjoy working on planes as well.
What are some major trends you have seen developing over the past 20-30 years?
I have not personally seen a lot of changes. I know that a lot of shops are going to be manned by civilians and that reduces the opportunity to work at select bases but there are a lot of great assignments out there.
What golden nuggets of wisdom would you like to pass on to our readers?
I would suggest to them that they pursue off-duty education. I am currently taking online classes through the University of Phoenix and I feel that education is the key to a successful career.