Wing’s first-ever flying shirt

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Stephen J. Caruso
  • 514th Air Mobility Wing

2020 was a year of many firsts. One such inaugural milestone: the 514th Air Mobility Wing gained its first flying first sergeant, Master Sgt. William M. Simurra.

Simurra spent several years as a boom operator with the 76th Air Refueling Squadron before being selected for first sergeant duty with the 514th Civil Engineer Squadron last July. 

The unique part about this move: Simurra is able to keep flying, which is why he joined the Air Force in the first place. Until recently, this would not have been possible, since certain career enlisted aviators could not serve as first sergeants outside of their flying squadron and maintain flying status. 

Career Flyer

Born and raised in the village of Suffern, N.Y., where he is a civilian police officer today, Simurra enlisted in the Air Force Reserve in 2007. He joined the 514th AMW as an aeromedical evacuation technician. It made sense for him to join the Air Force Reserve because he could get a guaranteed contract as a flyer.

“I wanted to fly,” Simurra said.

And fly he did, with more than thirty combat missions with the 514th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron while deployed to Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, in 2011.

“During that time I was also working as a paramedic,” Simurra said. “So I was kind of building my experience on the outside which helped out with what I was doing here. But I wanted to challenge myself a little bit more and I realized how much I liked flying."

So in 2012, Simurra interviewed with the 76th Air Refueling Squadron and cross trained to become an in-flight refueling technician, better known as a ‘boom operator.’ 

During two more deployments to the Middle East, Simurra quickly gained technical expertise in KC-10 Extender air refueling operations, working as a key member on a team of professional aircrew.

“I can only say good things about my deployments,” Simurra said. “I had great crews, which is like family. Because of crew rest and the way the missions line up, you’re always working with the same people, so you spend a lot of time together and get really tight. You get really good at working together.”

As a traditional reservist in both career fields, he was able to see the direct impact of his work during his deployments, Simurra said.

“Deploying as an air evac tech, you’re transporting the warfighter, the person on the front lines,” Simurra said. “Someone who might have been injured in a rocket attack or an IED blast. You’re on the airplane and they’ve got their Purple Heart taped to their chest, so you feel like you're really helping this person who is the tip of the spear.”

The impact he was having as an in-flight refueling technician was no less apparent while supporting counter ISIS operations on deployments to Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, Simurra said. 

“As a boom operator, I felt that same impact,” Simurra said. “An F-16 comes up and they have four bombs on their wings, and you give them gas. They come back and they don’t have their bombs any more. You know that you’re supporting kinetic strikes."

From Flight Suit to First Shirt

Simurra learned a lot during his deployments and became a boom operator instructor to share his real world experience with the next generation of in-flight refueling technicians. He also knew he wanted to continue progressing as a leader supporting the broader mission at the wing, so he started to consider first sergeant duty. 

Air Force first sergeants, often affectionately referred to as “first shirt” or simply “shirt,” oversee a range of issues including health, morale, discipline and welfare. First sergeants wear a diamond on their rank insignia symbolizing their special duty and provide key leadership advice on command priorities. 

Simurra became a first shirt in July 2020 and attended the Air Force First Sergeant Academy at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., in August of that year. 

“I wanted to grow a little bit more and get more involved in not just managing a few people as a supervisor, but being part of the organizational leadership team,” Simurra said. “That’s an opportunity that’s available to first sergeants.” 

At the same time, Simurra wanted to continue supporting the flying mission. Fortunately, a recently published memo allowed him to keep his flying status even while serving in a full-time special duty as a first shirt. Unlike previous boom operators seeking to become first sergeants, Simurra did not have to hang up his flight suit to put on the diamond. 

Looking forward in his career, Simurra’s plans seem to embody the first sergeant motto:

My job is people - Every One is My Business. I dedicate my time and energy to their needs; their health, morale, discipline and welfare. I grow in strength by strengthening my people. My job is done in faith; my people build faith. My job is people - EVERY ONE IS MY BUSINESS.

“I want to be a good first sergeant for my folks,” Simurra said. “I try to take it one day at a time. I try to practice what I preach. If I tell people about opportunities for PME [Professional Military Education] or doing their Reserve Enlisted Development Plan, getting their undergraduate degree, doing those things to further themselves as Airmen, I want to be doing that, too.” 

First, Probably Not the Last

While Simurra is the first flying first shirt at the 514th AMW, it is likely that other enlisted flyers will follow in his footsteps. Simurra’s advice to other career enlisted aviators considering first sergeant duty is to seek guidance from good mentors, as they will have to balance their duties as first shirts with flying qualifications, PME, civilian jobs and family life.