‘Charter chief’ reflects on adventurous career

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Wallace Liggett, one of the first-ever chief master sergeants in the Air Force, shows off his Charter Chief medallion which was presented to him after being inducted into the Air Force Heritage Hall of Fame. (photo by 2nd Lt. Bryan Bouchard)

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Wallace Liggett, one of the first-ever chief master sergeants in the Air Force, shows off his Charter Chief medallion which was presented to him after being inducted into the Air Force Heritage Hall of Fame. (photo by 2nd Lt. Bryan Bouchard)

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Wallace Liggett stands next to a C-54 cargo aircraft in the midst of the Berlin Airlift. He was a crew chief and flew 105 missions into Berlin as part of the largest airlift in history at the time. Over the course of his career, he
witnessed and took part in many historical events of the Air Force, becoming one of the service’s first senior and then chief master sergeants. (courtesy photo)

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Wallace Liggett stands next to a C-54 cargo aircraft in the midst of the Berlin Airlift. He was a crew chief and flew 105 missions into Berlin as part of the largest airlift in history at the time. Over the course of his career, he witnessed and took part in many historical events of the Air Force, becoming one of the service’s first senior and then chief master sergeants. (courtesy photo)

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. - -- Retired Chief Master Sgt. Wallace Liggett's career didn't go as he had planned in the beginning, but maybe it shouldn't have. By the end of his Air Force career, he had made history. 

After graduating as an air cadet in 1944, he found himself without a plane and without a slot into pilot school. 

"I was planning on being a pilot," Chief Liggett said. "We were going through regular pilot training. Obviously at 18, I just graduated high school, I didn't have any college, but that's the way a lot of guys went in. Chuck Yeager was in that category. He entered the
service out of high school." 

At that time, the chief said, millions of people were getting drafted and there were a lot of college kids entering the service. 

"A young man comes in with four years of engineering and high test scores, you want to use him. So you want to use him in preference over someone like me." 

But losing his pilot slot opened up what would be an adventurous career path in maintenance. He was an aircraft mechanic on such famed airplanes as the Enola Gay and the Boxcar, which were made famous when pilots dropped the first atomic bombs over Japan, ending the Pacific campaign in World War II. 

When the Air Force became a separate service in 1947, Chief Liggett remembers it
being a welcomed event. 

"We thought we'd accomplished a lot and contributed as much as anyone to the winning of World War II, and we just felt like we deserved to be a separate service," he said during his interview on the Air Force's 60th birthday. 

The Berlin Airlift, considered one of the earliest examples of the significance of airpower was used to supply everything from food to coal to the western side of Berlin amid a blockade from Communists in the east. 

As a crew chief, he flew 105 missions into Berlin during the airlift. 

"We were unloading coal in Berlin in the British sector," Chief Liggett said. "I was a crew chief; I took care of the plane, lived with it, and flew with it. Sometimes we'd make two trips a day. We lost a lot of crews. We were coming into Berlin two minutes apart with a separation of 500 feet. 

The chief was pretty burnt out he said, after the missions over Germany and considered for a time getting out of the service altogether. That was, until his dream job came up. 

From there he went to flight engineer school and was assigned to a unit which ferried various aircraft around the country. 

Eventually, the chief was assigned to the C-124 Globemaster II, a sort of guppy-looking cargo aircraft. 

One particular mission aboard this aircraft stuck out in the chief's mind. It was a mission where he was flying with a C-124 unit into Burbank, Calif., to pick up a pretty important aircraft, which is still in service today. 

"Someone from Washington, D.C. said 'we have a mission for you guys and there's only 17 people in the world who know about it,'" the chief said. "So we go into Lockheed-Burbank (California) and the next day we load this strange piece of equipment on a dolly all covered in canvas and it filled the C-124." 

They flew it to a dry lakebed in Nevada and returned to Burbank to pick up another load, again covered in canvas. The chief later learned that what he and his crew were transporting was the first U-2 aircraft. 

Chief Liggett flew with the C-124s for many years, even ferrying nuclear warheads around the country during the Cold War. 

After flying for many years at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, Hill Air Force Base, Utah and Dover Air Force Base, Del., the chief wanted to settle down with his family, and started work as a ground maintenance Airman working on none other than the C-124. 

His prior 3,500 flying hours as a flight engineer on the C-124 made him the consummate expert at fixing it, which enhanced his career and helped him to make more Air Force history. 

"I had grown up with that thing," the chief said of the C-124. "I had about every problem you can think of with that thing. When they pulled this baby in, I could give them a lowdown on everything they needed to fix." 

After graduating the NCO Academy as an honor graduate, he was able to take the E-8 test in 1958. It was a new rank and there were 60,000 master sergeants with only 600 to be selected. 

"I aced the test," the chief said. "Half the master sergeants failed. Fortunately, I had just
finished the NCO Academy. My boss didn't make it , and he said to me, 'just because I'm so stupid I can't pass this test, I'm not holding you up.'" 

Soon after at Dover there was an accident with a C-124. Maintenance was blamed so the entire maintenance leadership for that unit was fired and there were two E-8s up for
two jobs: a new line chief for the flightline and what the chief called a "bucket of worms" in fixing the problems leading to the previous accident. 

"I chose the bucket of worms," Chief Liggett said. "If you won't take the job, you don't deserve chief." 

By putting the mission and his people first, the chief turned the mission around and fixed the problems. So when it was time for the eight E-8s on Dover to compete for the two chief stripes, he was selected. 

Chief Liggett had one more assignment in his career -- Mather Air Force Base, Calif., eventually finishing out as the line chief for a B-52 wing. He remembers sending the first group of B-52s to Vietnam and realized then, it was time to retire. 

Nowadays the Sun City, Ariz., resident spends his time relaxing and traveling around the country with his wife, pursuing his passion for photography. 

While his career didn't start out the way the chief had planned, it turned out pretty good. 

The self-proclaimed, smalltown Kansas farm boy said he will never forget the men he served with or the lessons he learned along the way. 

"I learned there's three ways you can do things," the chief said. "The first is you can (complain) your head off about it and do a bad job. The second is you can just go do it and go through it. But I figured, if I hit this with a little bit of exuberance and do a good job, people will start to notice -- that worked out all along."