A Higher Calling
Photos by Keith Nordstrom

May 2, 2001


DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, DOVER, Del. -- Mark McKenna has an ex-girlfriend's uncle to thank back home in North Attleboro.

If it weren't for him, McKenna would probably be clipping someone's hedges right about now, instead of helping troubleshoot problems on a control panel in the cockpit of the second-largest plane in the world, the United States Air Force's C-5 Galaxy.

At 22, McKenna has one of the most important jobs in the world today, making sure Dover Air Force Base's fleet of 36, battleship gray C-5s are up and running. And the North Attleboro High School graduate says he owes it all to an old flame's uncle, an ex-airman who talked him out of his landscaping job and into the Air Force.

To call the hulking, six-story tall, 247-foot long C-5 an important piece of America's military hardware would be an understatement. The C-5, after all, is really the lifeline for troops serving all over the world, especially those patrolling the war-ravaged Balkans as NATO peacekeepers such as the members of the U.S. Army Reserve's 399th Combat Support Hospital of Taunton.

Each day, a few C-5s take off from Dover for places such as Ramstein, Germany, and other points worldwide, loaded down with cargo the soldiers abroad need to survive, from food and clothing to tanks and tractors.

McKenna is responsible for giving the aging flying beasts, which many here call "lead sleds," much needed tender-loving care. He's a crew chief -- crew dogs in military slang -- in the Air Mobility Command.

Every day he and his fellow crew dogs clamber and crawl over, under and within a chosen C-5, gutting its insides piece by piece -- relubricating, refitting and rewiring everything and anything to ensure that it is in top condition. Most of the planes were built in two time periods -- the late 1960s and early '70s and again in the 1980s. The average overhaul takes a team of 20 crew dogs six weeks, he says.

McKenna, whose parents Michael and Maureen McKenna live on Katherine Way in North Attleboro, joined the Air Force in December 1998.

As a boy growing up in the town, joining the military was always in the back of his mind because his father had served in the Marines, he recalls.

"I always figured I'd be doing something like this," he tells a reporter while standing under the massive nose of one of a fleet of C-5s parked in a row off a runway at Dover.

"It's been great so far," he says."

Two other Massachusetts residents, McKenna's buddy and fellow crew chief, Bob Cote of Ware, and 1st Lt. Shane Noyes of Dracut, joined McKenna on the tarmac.

Noyes is one of the guys responsible for flying the giant aircraft. He said his interest in flying for the Air Force was formed at a young age, while visiting the now-defunct Pease Air Force Base in Newington, N.H.

"I went there as a kid and was hooked," he says.

After graduating from Dracut High School in 1994, Noyes enrolled in the Air Force Academy where he learned how to be a pilot.

So far the venture has taken him to 15 countries.

"It's been great for me," he says. "I can't imagine doing anything else."

McKenna says he hopes to get as much from the Air Force as well.

"My goal right now is to get assigned to Europe, somewhere in Germany," he says. "Then I'd save up my leave and backpack to every country. It's better than landscaping, I'll tell you."