116th veteran gets airborne family reunion on last flight

It appeared to be a day like any other for people onboard the Joint STARS E-8C ground surveillance system.

After some maintenance problems and the switchout of an aircraft, they launched from Robins Air Force Base heading north to the Carolinas. The pilot, Lt. Col. Greg Taylor, leveled off the modified Boeing 707 aircraft and settled in for the multi-hour flight.

The 18 mission crew members in back were focused on their computers and communications gear, digging into their training regimen.

It was all routine for most members of the 116th Air Control Wing team, except for Chief Master Sgt. Randal Money. The 31-year veteran was closing out his Air Force and Georgia Air National Guard career with the April 9 sortie, shutting the door on a record that saw him serve as maintenance crew chief for a number of key Air Force systems — F-4 and F-15 fighters, the B-1 bomber — and finally as a flight engineer for Joint STARS.

The flight was exceptional for another reason. There was to be a family reunion at 20,000 feet — a meeting that came about only after intense coordination between the Robins unit and the 2nd Air Refueling Squadron at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J.

A typical Joint STARS training mission calls for in-flight refueling. This one was no exception, except that the boom operator on the servicing KC-10 tanker was to be Money’s stepson, Staff Sgt. Ken Essick.

“It was the best way a father could end his career in the military,” Money said this week. “I don’t know of anybody who got to experience what I did — having their son up there. Usually by the time your son gets in the military, the father is retired. It was just an awe-inspiring experience. There was a lot of pride, pride in knowing that he was there, that he was doing his job and I was doing mine. It’s hard to explain.”

The refueling hookup took 30 to 40 minutes, and Money was patched into the communications link with the servicing KC-10, talking to his son about family, vacation plans and golf.

Essick said he was so busy flying the refueling boom that the full significance of the day didn’t hit him until later.

“When I got on the ground, I thought about it more,” he said. “It was pretty cool. It was his last sortie doing what he had done for a long time. It was just another mission for me because I have plenty of time left in my career. But it made a huge impression on him.”

Essick said there was a “passing the torch” quality to it.

“It was the end of his career and the early stage of mine,” the 25-year-old airman said. “You definitely get a ‘new generation’ sense from this thing.”

Money married Essick’s mother, Lorna, in 1997 when Ken was in the sixth grade. Essick said he bonded quickly with his stepfather.

It was a military-focused family since his mother is a retired senior master sergeant. But there was no pressure to join the military.

“They didn’t try to force it on me,” the young airman said.

Money said his stepson went to college for a year and did the same thing he did — concluded that college wasn’t for him at that point.

“He wanted my opinion on what he could do, and I asked if he had considered the military,” Money recalled.

“He wanted to know what I would do if I had to do it over again. I told him if I had his eyesight I’d try to be a loadmaster or boom operator. He chose the boom operator.”

That was six years ago. Essick has logged more than 2,500 flying hours for his heavily taxed unit and has become a boomer instructor. His ultimate goal is to follow Money into the Guard and the 116th.

“I want to be a flight engineer, but they don’t have any slots right now,” he said.

Money would welcome the more permanent reunion.

“The rest of the family’s down here,” the Bonaire resident said. “He has two young sons, and they want to get close to home.”

Taylor, the Joint STARS pilot that day, had a front-row seat to the airborne reunion, edging his four-engined jet into a final hookup with the KC-10. He remembered the first thing Money said over the communications link was, “How you doing, son?”

“That came across the airwaves,” Taylor said. “The whole crew had a feeling of satisfaction. It was exciting. In this one event, we had a chief with 31 years in the Air Force and his stepson just beginning his career. And on the chief’s last flight, they hook up. Kind of nostalgic.”

To contact writer Gene Rector, call 923-3109, extension 239.