“The secret is simple– just live long enough,“ said retired Chief Paul Wesley Airey.
“If you live long enough, (the awards) all come to you,“joked the 85-year-old native of New Bedford, Mass.
The chief was honored with the Air Force Association's Lifetime Achievement Award at Gunter's senior academy, becoming the first enlisted member to receive the award.
The first chief master sergeant of the Air Force received the award for his continued service to the Air Force, said the association's president and chief executive officer.
“Chief Airey was unanimously selected by board members to receive our Lifetime Achievement Award,“ said retired Lt. Gen. Michael M. Dunn. “When you're the first chief master sergeant of the Air Force, you set the standard for the entire enlisted force and each of the chief master sergeants of the Air Force who follow you. His standard was impeccable and his service, leadership and mentorship to senior NCOs after he left the Air Force has been fantastic.“
The Lifetime Achievement Award,establish in 2003,recognizes the significant lifetime achievement of an individual in the fields of air and space, said Robert Largent, the Air Force Association board chairman.The chief was the 11th recipient of the award. Other honorees include Ohio Sen. John Glenn, retired astronaut and Marine; deceased Air Force Gen. Russell Dougherty, who once served as commander of Strategic Air Command; and Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran and Medal of Honor recipient.
“This award going to Chief Airey is passed due,“ Largent said. “This was an opportunity for us to recognize the life and achievements of an Air Force leader and visionary.“
Chief Airey said when he joined the armed service 65 years ago during World War II, he never believed he would some day be at the Senior NCO Academy receiving the Air Force Association's Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I always thought that when the job was over and I retired, that would be it. I didn't think I would be coming to events like this,“ he said. “While all the awards I have received are special, this award is particularly special for me. Since the senior academy is where it's at, I'm especially proud to receive it here today.“
Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Rodney J. McKinley, the current top Air Force enlisted Airman, said he was proud to be part of Chief Airey receiving the award.
“In my opinion, Chief Airey is the most respected enlisted Airman in the Air Force,“ he said. “He is a man who had a remarkable career, and is someone we can all look up to, especially me. There's nobody else.“
The chief's military career began in 1943 when he joined the Army Air Corps. He first flew combat missions in the European Theater as a B-24 Liberator aerial gunner, before his aircraft was shot down on its 28th mission, and he became a German prisoner of war.
Following World War II, Chief Airey served as a first sergeant for much of his career before being named the first chief master sergeant of the Air Force in 1967. He helpedestablish the weighted promotion systemstill used today. The promotion system greatly increased the retention rate of enlisted members.He retired from the Air Force in 1970.