Sales Manager for FinishMaster Once Painted Air Force One

Sales Manager for FinishMaster Once Painted Air Force One

Mike McKenzie has more than 23 years of experience working for several paint companies and currently he is a Sales Manager for FinishMaster, overseeing New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Today, he calls on body shops and supports a sales staff, but his career began in the military, when McKenzie was painting airplanes for nine years while in the Air Force.

Most notably, McKenzie, 55, was part of a crew that painted and maintained the exterior of Airforce One from 1989 to 1993 during the presidency of George Bush.

McKenzie's nine-year stint in the Air Force had him working on a wide range of different military aircraft before getting to paint Airforce One. These included refinish operations on T-37, T-38 training aircraft and F-5, F-111, F-16 fighter aircraft at Williams Air Force Base, Chandler AZ and Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, he explained.

"When I was young airman, I was stationed at McChord Airforce Base and I was one of five Airframe Repair and Corrosion Control Specialists who were in charge of keeping a squadron of C-130’s and C-141’s corrosion-free and looking good for the general in charge of the base."

Sometimes ingenuity leads to opportunity. "One day as we were prepping the aircraft for deployment, I had to repaint the tail of a C-130. As I was painting the tail in different colors, I put a subtle duck design on the tail. The general in charge saw this and loved how it looked, because anyone who looked at this plane could tell what part of the world it came from."

That small duck graphic later helped McKenzie to eventually work on the "Big One." "After a while, this same general moved to a different base and requested me to oversee his squadron. After a short time, he started sending me on special projects to inspect aircraft and to refinish them according to mil specs. I worked on the B1 Bomber project as we applied special coatings so it was undetected during its missions."

Landing the assignment to work on Airforce wasn't exactly a slam dunk. "When I was stationed at Incirlik, my commander put in for the assignment," McKenzie said. "I had to go through an intense background check. They went back to my high school days and interviewed family and friends for hours to gain my top secret clearance."

McKenzie quickly became a team member of a select group that was highly skilled to do the job. "There were approximately five or six airman assigned to the squadron that had the clearance to work on the aircraft," he said. "We all had to do our own prepping and painting on both of the two Airforce Ones in the fleet."

Most people think that there is only one Airforce One, but actually the president regularly flies in one of two customized Boeing 747-200B jets specifically designed for his use and identical to each other.

Most of the work McKenzie and the rest of his corrosion control crew performed on President Bush's plane was called spot painting as they concentrated on specific sections of this six-story high plane. "We never had to repaint the entire aircraft and much of our time was spent maintaining it and inspecting it for corrosion and structural cracks or defects. There was a crew of 20-30 maintenance or crew chiefs that keep both aircraft and four smaller jets polished and clean all the time."
The security surrounding the planes was intense and incredibly thorough, McKenzie said. "The security was unbelievable--you had to go through two sets of gates where they would conduct a body check and then check the vehicle with a dog. Then once we were in there, we had to be escorted if we needed to do any work inside the aircraft."

To get the president back in the air, sometimes McKenzie and his crew worked on tight deadlines. "We painted the main part of the aircraft and the engines as well," he said. "We had to bring fans into exhaust the overspray. When the engines came into our building for painting, the security was even more tight than usual, for obvious reasons. As we were prepping the engine, we had 2-3 guys in a security detail with the crew chief there. We had to prep, paint and get those engines back to the hangars in less than eight hours, so talk about a tight cycle time!"

Did Airforce One get into any collisions during McKenzie's five years on the job? "We never got into any fender benders, but we did have to repair the aircraft a few times when some of the crew chiefs drop tools or buffers on it. We also had to re-paint sections of the plane due to things like bird collisions, hail and other conditions that could cause major delamination, corrosion, stress cracks and other paint issues. After a long trip, we would have to perform an in-depth inspection to find what needed to be repaired."

Did McKenzie ever get to meet President Bush during his time painting his plane? "Oh yes--several times. He was very appreciative of what we were doing and told us that every time I met the man."

In 1991, McKenzie was awarded an Commendations Medal and was Honorable Discharge from the Air Force. Looking back now, it was a great experience and he would not change it for the world. "I was able to work on a team that was one of the best in the world and I served a president, which is pretty special. I still love painting and do it all the time. When these young painters challenge me, I pick up that gun and show them I still have some skills."

Ed Attanasio

Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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