Becoming chief: The Paul W. Airey story

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Reggie Manning
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
Editor's Note: This is part one of an eight-part series that highlights some of the men and women who have been influential in the early history of the United States Air Force. Part two will feature Esther Blake.

Paul Wesley Airey was born on Dec. 13, 1923 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Airey was the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force and served in the highest enlisted position from April 3, 1967, to July 21, 1969.

Airey served his country from 1942, to 1970 and for many years after as a Regional Director for the Air Force Sergeants Association, and as a member of various foundations.

He is known as an inspirational leader among the enlisted force and was an essential figure to the shaping of the Air Force today, noted by Air Force Times.

Growing up during the Great Depression, Airey dropped out of high school and joined the Army Air Corps a year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

As kid from Quincy, Mass, a Navy town, his first choice of service was joining the Navy. But after a recruiters display of disinterest and belligerent behavior, Airey joined the AAC. After completion of radio school, he went on to serve as a B-24 radio operator and aerial gunner. Airey was credited with 28 combat missions with the 15th Air Force of Europe.

In July 1944, while flying over Vienna, Austria, Airey's B-24 was damaged by flak. The pilot managed to steer the plane into Hungary, but Airey was captured became a Prisoner of War for nearly a year.

During his captivity, Airey exemplified discipline, honor and mutual support among his fellow 6,000 POW prisoners--ages before the military installment of the Code of Conduct. As Allied Armies drew closer to his camp, Airey and other prisoners were forced to march 400 miles for 90 days, deeper into Germany. In May 1945, Airey was liberated by British forces, and documented as weighing less than 100 pounds.

With a strong will to live and great devotion to serve, Airey reenlisted in the Air Force after a 90-day recuperation leave.

Stationed at Naha Air Base, Okinawa, Airey was returned to his career field of radio repair. It was there that he developed a corrosion control assembly line to counter the severe affects of tropical moisture in the area. His innovative mindset and keen eye for detail saved the Air Force millions of dollars and earned Airey the Legion of Merit--an honor not commonly awarded to enlisted members.

Over the next 14 years, Airey would hold the position of First Sergeant for five different bases.

He said, "Of all the jobs I had in the Air Force, I think first sergeant was probably the best. I liked it. I liked the discipline part of it. I liked being able to counsel and lead. You never knew what was going to happen, day or night."

Airey's career efforts and accomplishments earned him the selection by Chief of Staff Gen. John P. McConnell to become the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. This new title would serve as a direct advisor to the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff. Airey held this position from April 3, 1967, to July 31, 1969.

During his time as the CMSAF, he tackled retention issues by linking them to the enlisted promotion system. He led a team of Air Force Specialist and created the Weighted Airman Promotion System, which is still in effect today. Airey also pushed for the induction of the NCO academy to further enhance the professional development and management skills of enlisted personnel.

After he completed his tenure as CMSAF, Airey returned to Tyndall AFB, Fla., and regained his prided position as First Sergeant for his final year in the Air Force. He retired on Aug 1, 1970.

Even after retirement and his career as an Airman was completed, Airey still had a drive to serve his beloved Air Force, and continue supporting the Enlisted Force. Airey took up the position as a regional director of the Air Force Sergeant Association and was an honored speaker and panelist. He took every chance presented to him to step in front of the Airmen and speak uplifting and motivational words.

"Love your Air Force. Always do the very best job you can," was Airey's consistent message to various Air Force bases around the world.

Until his death on March 11, 2009, Airey was heavily active in the Airmen Memorial Museum and the Air Force Memorial Foundation, and was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 by the Air Force Association.

Airey is survived by his three children Ellen Reid, Shawn Airey and Dale Airey who followed his father's footsteps and became an Air Force chief master sergeant.

Airey is quoted on the wall of the nation's Air Force Memorial: "When I think of the Enlisted Force, I see Dedication, Determination, Loyalty and Valor."

Airey will forever be remembered for his courageous efforts, his bravery and will to lead even as a POW, and the example he set for Airmen in all tiers. He set the bar high for CMSAFs who came after him, and is truly an Air Force icon.

Content in this article was taken from the following websites: and