Hill Air Force Base, Utah – Many people think that the aircraft belongs to the pilot who flies it. But for every crew chief in the Air Force, there’s a slightly different take on that story.
“When your name goes on a jet, it shows other people that this is your jet,” said Staff Sgt. Roberto Tejada-Najera, an F-35A Lightning ll Demonstration Team dedicated crew chief. “It’s like your first car, and you take a ton of pride in maintaining it.”
As a crew chief, Tejada is responsible for all the maintenance and inspections on his aircraft, ensuring that his jet is safe and ready to fly whenever needed. Until that aircraft lifts off the runway, it belongs to him, and he was proud of that. But Tejada didn’t start his career on the world’s most advanced fighter jet; instead he began his career as an A-10C Thunderbolt ll crew-chief at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
“Two-seven-five was the first jet I had my name on. I wanted that jet to look good for my pilots, so whenever I was waiting for them to step to the jet, I kept myself busy by making it look better,” he said. “I would wipe down my struts, polish my canopy...anything I could do to make that jet stand out.”
“When Tejada first arrived at the unit after graduating his tech-school, his work ethic spoke for itself and his push to become one of the best was apparent,” said Tech. Sgt. Brian Pontes, Tejada’s first supervisor at DMAFB and now the noncommissioned officer in charge for the A-10 Thunderbolt ll Demonstration Team. “After I left that base, I knew he would continue to do great things for himself and better the Airmen around him. It’s awesome to see his dream of being on a demonstration team finally came true.”
After a short stint as a U-2 Dragon Lady crew chief in Korea, he then came to Hill Air Force Base, Utah, working on the F-35A, where he applied to be a part of the newly transitioned F-35 Demonstration Team.
“I’d seen videos of previous demonstration teams performing when I was younger,” Tejada said. “When I first heard the F-35 Demonstration Team was moving to Hill, I knew I had to jump on that opportunity.”
In addition to the Thunderbirds, the Air Force has four single-ship jet demonstration teams: the F-35, the F-22, the F-16, and the A-10. These teams travel up to eight months a year, performing at air shows and for communities across the country and sometimes the world.
During a normal show year, these teams rarely cross paths, often performing at different shows simultaneously. And when a crew chief leaves a duty station, they turn their jet over to another, taking with them only memories of their aircraft.
So for Tejada, to be able to work on one demonstration team, only to see his first jet and supervisor on another demonstration team at the same show, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“It was one of the coolest parts of this last season,” said Tejada. “To be on the F-35 Demo Team, to see my old jet as the A-10 Demo Team’s primary jet, and to see my old supervisor at the same shows together-- I never thought I would have all those opportunities lined up in one location again.”
Tejada’s old A-10 has since been returned to the operational fleet after the 2020 air show season, but he’ll continue to maintain his F-35 with pride and represent the Air Force on the demonstration team for the 2021 air show season.
“I’m not the most outgoing person, but I love getting to talk to the public and explaining to them what it’s like being a maintainer and showing them around the jet,” he said. “I wanted to join the Air Force and be on a demonstration team, so this is kind of my way of ‘paying it forward’.”