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Life path gives C-17 pilot high careers with Alaska, Reserve (Part 2 of 3)

by Jake Chappelle
446th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

7/11/2014 - MCCHORD FIELD, Wash. -- Contrary to his original - and fairly humble - goal upon graduating from San Diego State University in 1989, Garin Tentschert joined the executive club of U.S. military officers merely days ago.

"When I joined the military, I just wanted to serve 20 years or more and fly for the Air Force," said the former 97th Airlift Squadron commander, who was promoted to "full-bird" colonel July 1. "Life kinda happens as you get further into it."

It's not like "life" prevents the 49-year-old Air Force Reserve pilot from squeezing hours in the stratosphere. Out of his 18,000 hours in the air, about 6K are from flying Air Force missions; the rest are from flying for Alaska Airlines.

"I can't believe I'm getting paid to do it sometimes - both jobs," he said, regarding his 15-year careers flying for the airline and the 446th Airlift Wing here. "That's what they say, 'you never worked a day in your life if you love what you do.' It's all about timing."

"I've flown with Garin on the military side, on the civilian side and, hands down, probably the finest pilot, and one of the finest officers I've had the opportunity to serve with on both fronts," said Rick Grayson, 446th AW vice commander and fellow Alaska Airlines captain. "There's probably not a better pilot, either in the Air Force or at Alaska Airlines than Garin."

But he wouldn't be basking in the glory in his recently earned title of Alaska Airlines' Portland-Seattle Base chief pilot - which still carries that "new-car scent" - if he wasn't prepared.

"I was actually told to apply," he said. "They recognized, I can lead troops, I can put projects together, [and] I can make things happen. They've seen that, and that's why they selected me - I think."

Grayson said Tentschert's recognition goes back to one of his first interviews with the company.

"We used to have interview [simulators] at Alaska Airlines, and he did his with our director of operations, who was kind of a hammer," Grayson said. "He said it was probably the finest interview sim he's ever seen. Garin flies the heck out of a jet. He just went up on his own and jumped up in a jet he's never flown before and just nailed it, did great."

Putting it into perspective, Tentschert's chief pilot position places him in charge of around 1,000 Alaska Airline pilots in the Seattle and Portland region. "It's a good deal," he added.

But the shot at flying for the company didn't come out of nowhere for Tentschert. The Maple Valley, Washington resident's first duty station was at McChord Air Force Base, Washington, in 1990 as an active-duty pilot, and where his fascination bloomed with the Pacific Northwest.

"To me, the northwest is home."

After leaving McChord in 1995 to soak up sun and beaches at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, Tentschert decided to sharpen the saw in 1999, by returning to the Northwest. But, he wasn't finished with embracing his military service.

When he discovered the 446th AW, it created the ideal scenario that rekindled his love affair with his first duty station - and the love of his life.

"My wife and I wanted to make sure we maintained the northwest as our home," said the proud husband and father of four.

He also got to reunite with former colleagues.

"I was happy as all get out that he was coming back to the northwest," Grayson said.

The timing couldn't have been better for the 446th because McChord was transitioning from the C-141 Starlifter to the C-17 Globemaster III, which meant the Reserve aircrews had to develop a new prowess.

Garin returned from Charleston fully qualified and took on that role, said Grayson, who helped certify Tentschert on C-141s during his first stint at McChord.

"It was kind of funny," he continued. "I had checked him out in lead airdrop and gave his check rides. Fast forward 12 years later, and he's the one doing it for me in a new jet. On top of working for Alaska Airlines, he was down here busting his tail to get our guys checked out and to do it safely. It's because of great guys like Garin, who kinda schooled us up, coached us up, and got us where we needed to be."

Tentschert said he barely had time to unpack upon being hired with Alaska.

"When I came over from active duty, they picked me up right away, so I got hired both with the Reserve and Alaska at the same time," he added.

Alaska and four other airlines had Tentschert in their sights, and he admitted he knew little about the company prior to doing some exploration. But like a high school football phenom on college signing day, he went with his impulse.

"I started doing my research," he said. "I fanned applications to all the airlines. I got lots of calls. Once Alaska called, I pretty much put all the other airlines on the backburner. To be selected by Alaska was like hitting the jackpot."

Like many reservists, Tentschert has long-term experience with the juggling act of the three-headed monster of the Reserve, family, and employer.

"You have to have the support," he said. "If you spend too much time on one, the other two suffer. When I was a squadron commander, I would tell my guys, 'sometimes you have to borrow from the other two to do your military duty, but you better pay it back.'"

If support is the foundation, then communication is the composition.

"As a reservist, you have to be honest and communicate with your families. Also communicating with your employer what your requirements are in the military, so they're not out in left field, and all of a sudden they get a left hook to the chin when you don't show up for work for two weeks."

His position at Alaska allows him to be an influential voice for the military employees to management.

"They appreciate it when I talk about what great things we do in the military," he said. "The 446th does a heck of a job in trying to work well with their civilian employers."

Tentschert's influence on the 446th didn't stop with getting aircrews up to speed with the C-17. He was one of the pilots who started the ripple effect of getting Reserve pilots hired as Alaska Airlines first officers.

"You can't swing a dead cat without hitting an Alaska person around here," he said with a grin. "I think I marked most of the cause for that." "I wrote letters for probably 30 or 40 guys, so I got a lot of guys hired from the 446th."

About 33 percent - one third - of 446th pilots fly for Alaska.

"That makes us have to work together - Alaska and the 446th," Tentschert said. "If we get deployed, and they lose that many pilots that's a big dent in their operation, so we have to be a team on how we manage that."

Apparently it's not an issue.

"People are just happy to be there," he said referring to why he's been with the airline as long as he has. "You look around Alaska and that's the thing people notice. They love their jobs, they love the people they're working with, and it shows. For that reason, and primarily for that reason, we've got great leaders. But we do so well because of the people. If we lose that, we lose our company."

Tentschert said the 446th isn't any different.

"It's like jumping into this huge family and great way of life where I know at any moment if I need something these guys will bend over backwards to make it happen."

Grayson said Tentschert's one of those rare breeds of pilots who makes the most of the job.

"We flew this airdrop mission where we were alerted at 10 at night, flew all night, all the way across the country," he said. "We're dropping at like six in the morning on the Eastcoast. We still had a blast flying together. Pretty hard to find a guy you can do that safely with - fly all night long, dropping guys, recovering, and still be laughing, joking, and having a good time. He'd be my first choice of guys to fly with. He is a legend."

"I never knew this job would be so fun when I signed up for it, you know?" Tentschert said.

It isn't like he's way off target from his original plan. He graduated from Air Force pilot training in 1991, and continues to fly the C-17. That's more than 20 years of flying for the Air Force. After all, C-17 airdrop pilots can't afford to be off the mark.

With his recent promotion, Tentschert is underway for his new Air Force Reserve position as the emergency preparedness liaison officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, here in Washington.

*Story at a Glance • The second installment of a three-part human interest feature series about three Air Force Reservists who double, as a pilot, Life path gives C-17 pilot high careers with Alaska, Reserve, an aircraft maintainer, Maintenance SNCO blooms through Reserve, Alaska Airlines careers, and a customer service agent, McChord Reservist, Alaska Airlines agent targets prime customer satisfaction, for Alaska Airlines.