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Storied career of a flight engineer

Master Sgt. Curtis Stark, 7th Expeditionary Air Combat Control Squadron superintendent, conducts a pre-flight inspection in the cockpit of an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar Nov. 14. Stark has deployed 17 times with JSTAR aircraft in support of contingency operations and has accumulated more than 4,000 combat flying hours. After nearly 30 years of service he plans to retire from the Air Force in March 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman/Released)

Master Sgt. Curtis Stark, the 7th Expeditionary Airborne Command and Control Squadron superintendent, conducts a pre-flight inspection in the cockpit of an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, Nov. 14. Stark has deployed 17 times with JSTARS aircraft in support of contingency operations and has accumulated more than 4,000 combat flying hours. After nearly 30 years of service he plans to retire from the Air Force in March. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

Master Sgt. Curtis Stark, 7th Expeditionary Air Combat Control Squadron superintendent, inspects an emergency oxygen mask during a pre-flight inspection in the cockpit of an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar Nov. 14. Stark has deployed 17 times with JSTAR aircraft in support of contingency operations and has accumulated more than 4,000 combat flying hours. After nearly 30 years of service he plans to retire from the Air Force in March 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman/Released)

Master Sgt. Curtis Stark, the 7th Expeditionary Airborne Command and Control Squadron superintendent, inspects an emergency oxygen mask during a pre-flight inspection in the cockpit of an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, Nov. 14. Stark has deployed 17 times with JSTARS aircraft in support of contingency operations and has accumulated more than 4,000 combat flying hours. After nearly 30 years of service he plans to retire from the Air Force in March. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

Master Sgt. Curtis Stark, 7th Expeditionary Air Combat Control Squadron superintendent, conducts a pre-flight inspection on the exterior of an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar Nov. 14. Stark has deployed 17 times with JSTAR aircraft in support of contingency operations and has accumulated more than 4,000 combat flying hours. After nearly 30 years of service he plans to retire from the Air Force in March 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman/Released)

Master Sgt. Curtis Stark, the 7th Expeditionary Airborne Command and Control Squadron superintendent, conducts a pre-flight inspection on the exterior of an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, Nov. 14. Stark has deployed 17 times with JSTARS aircraft in support of contingency operations and has accumulated more than 4,000 combat flying hours. After nearly 30 years of service he plans to retire from the Air Force in March. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)

Everyone waits for his approval before the plane takes off.

He is Master Sgt. Curtis Stark, the 7th Expeditionary Airborne Command and Control Squadron superintendent. In nearly three decades of service, Stark has flown more than 400 combat missions in the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft and accumulated more than 4,000 combat flying hours.

Stark holds the record for most combat sorties flown and most combat flying hours as an Air Force flight engineer on JSTARS aircraft. When he speaks, people listen.

JSTARS aircraft are an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform designed to provide theater ground and air commanders with ground surveillance to support attack operations and targeting that contributes to the delay, disruption and destruction of enemy forces.

“We go and look for the bad guys and we track potential enemy targets,” Stark said. “We have a very important mission. If we miss a flight, if we cancel for any reason, we have to make it up. We’re needed all over the world.”

As a flight engineer, it’s Stark’s responsibility to check every system on the aircraft from electrical, to oxygen to hydraulics

Stark is currently serving on his 17th deployment at AUAB with the JSTARS community.

“The first 13 times I deployed I was single and I wanted to let the married guys stay home with their wives and kids and let me deploy over the holidays,” Stark said. “Plus, flight engineers were badly needed and I was able to gain more experience.”

Stark entered the Air Force on July 23, 1985. Over the next 10 years he worked as a munitions loader on F-4 Phantoms at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, helped the Turkish air force load munitions on the F-104 Starfighter, and worked alongside the German air force on a NATO assignment as a load monitor. Over the course of his career, he’s traveled to 16 countries on three continents.

In July 1995, Stark left the Air Force to work with Delta Airlines. But 18 months later, he was once again wearing the Air Force uniform, this time as a member of the Georgia Air National Guard.

“I joined the Air National Guard because I missed the military,” Stark said. “I missed the way we do things in the military.”

His first deployment came in July 2005 in support of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.

“On my first deployment the Army was using one of their morale calls every week to thank our commander for the support we provided,” Stark said. “That’s one thing that really sticks in my mind.”

Four years later, Stark experienced one of the most memorable moments in his life.

While serving on his 11th deployment on March 13, 2009, Stark’s E-8C JSTARS aircraft was undergoing aerial refueling when something went horribly wrong. During the refueling process, one of the fuel tanks became over-pressurized, causing it to rupture.

“I heard a big bang near the wing, the number two fuel tank over-pressurized, expanded and came off the rivets,” Stark said. “I was trying to figure out what was happening. I knew I had a fuel leak, but didn’t know why.”

The safety investigation found that a plug was left in one of the vents when the aircraft went through depot maintenance. “That caused the wing to pop off the rivets and the wing was essentially just a tin can. It was possible the wing could have twisted off,” he said.

Fortunately, the plane landed safely despite leaking fuel and suffering approximately $25 million in damage.

“When I got off the plane, I was white as a ghost,” Stark said.

Some people may hold Stark in high regard for the number of combat sorties he’s supported or the 11 Air Medals he’s earned, but the 6-foot-10-inch master sergeant said he’s more proud of the brave men he’s supported on the ground.

“My brothers in arms were out there, some of them for two 18-month tours,” he said. “Those guys are the ones I admire. They have my respect; my hat's off to them.”

Stark has spent nearly four years of his Air Force career at deployed locations. He’s missed anniversaries, birthdays, holidays and he’s heard his children ask him when he’s coming home all too often. However, the senior NCO said he has no regrets.

“I’ve been very blessed,” Stark said. “I always wanted to be in the military and I’ve been very lucky with the units I’ve been involved with. The military is not for everyone but it’s been good for me. I’ve been a part of something really big.”

In March, Stark plans to retire and hang up his size 15 boots, three months shy of 30 years of military service.

“We will miss him; there’s only one Curtis Stark,” said Maj. Kyle Duke, a 7th EACCS pilot. “He puts 100 percent into everything he does. He’s one of the hardest workers I know and an excellent example of service before self.”

“He has a very large heart. He’ll joke with you, tell stories, do impersonations, and he’ll bend over backwards to help you too,” Duke continued. “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to replace those boots.”

Stark said he’s looking forward to the next chapter in his life.

“In March of 2016 I can say I’m a veteran, I can say I’ve done my part,” he said. “I will also be able to get into a routine at home. After I retire I can focus on my job as a mechanic with Delta and on my family. I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time with my wife and my boys.”

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