The F-16 Whisperer: Legend retires after nearly 40 years of U.S. Service

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- It was 1961, and Alois Schmitz was 13 years old when he saved his friend from drowning in the Mosel River.

The German magazine Rasselbande heard Schmitz' heroic tale and selected him and nine other German teens to visit Harrisburg, Pa., where they would spend four weeks in the area.

While in America, Schmitz turned 14 years old, visited many landmarks along the east coast and, through a bizarre chain of events, even shook hands with President John F. Kennedy. But it was the feeling he had when he was looking at a North American F-86 Sabre transonic jet fighter aircraft that he remembers most.

Schmitz participated in a tour of a local military installation. There, he laid eyes on what was to be his lifelong career. He touched the F-86 Sabre, and from that day on, he knew he wanted to be an aircraft mechanic.

"I made a decision right then," Schmitz said. "I was only going to work in aircraft maintenance."

He returned to Germany, finished high school and began his training for aircraft maintenance. In 1966, he started working at Hahn AB. Since then, he hasn't stopped working with aircraft, either for the German air force or the U.S. Air Force ... until his retirement ceremony Aug. 17 in Hangar 3 here.

More than 100 Airmen, family and friends attended the ceremony to congratulate Schmitz on his lengthy career.

"He is a wealth of knowledge," said Staff Sgt. Tony Bozzi, 52nd CMS and coworker of Schmitz. "The amount of experience he has working with this aircraft is incredible. If you have a problem, he is the 'go-to' guy."

Tech. Sgt. David Schaefferkoetter has been working with Schmitz off and on for about 10 years and said that Schmitz' tutelage and mentorship has helped him become the person he is today. Schmitz' dedication to mission success inspired Schaefferkoetter to be the best Airman he could be.

"He may still call the shop to see how things are going," Schaefferkoetter said, grinning. "That's just the kind of person that he is. There's definitely going to be a giant hole in the fuels shop with him gone."

Schmitz' coworkers said that his experience and knowledge of the F-16 aircraft would sometimes be more than two or three Airmen put together. After all, Schmitz has worked specifically with the F-16 since 1982.

Inside the 52nd CMS, it is said that Schmitz could listen to and diagnose F-16 engine problems with just his intuition. He can feel the troubled vibrations with his hands. He understands the language. He just ... knows.

The technicians said they would still run all of the appropriate checklists to determine the problem, but almost 100 percent of the time, Schmitz' predictions were correct.

Lt. Col. Eric Morgan, 52nd CMS commander, spoke at the retirement ceremony about the breadth of knowledge that Schmitz has shared with Airmen throughout his four decades of service.

"It isn't that he was so good at his job -- which he is -- but that he took the time to train the future of the Air Force," Morgan said. "The Airmen that he's trained and the people he has impacted during his career are too many to count. His legacy will live forever."

Lt. Col. Greg Buckner, acting 52nd Maintenance Group commander, said Schmitz is the type of person who ensures mission accomplishment. His hard work and dedication are what makes the relationship between America and Germany that much stronger.

As far as Schmitz is concerned, though, he is just doing his job.

"I've never looked for a different job," he said. "I loved this one so much. And let me tell you, I'm going to miss it. I loved to work for the U.S. Air Force.

"I think I'm the happiest, proudest German," he continued, "because I've had the opportunity to work for the best Air Force in the world."

Schmitz' wife, Christa, has supported him throughout his entire career, but is happy to finally have more time to spend with him.

"Some times were good, some times were not so good," she said about how often Schmitz would travel to do his work abroad. "It's going to be good to have him here all the time now.

"He has a big to-do list at home waiting for him," she said with a laugh.