Stephen Burns works on exotic aircraft, practically in his own backyard.
Burns, Gardner, is an aircraft hydraulics mechanic at the U.S. Army Reserves at New Century.
He works full-time on army helicopters as a civilian, but Burns is also a soldier in the reserves.
When he first joined the military nine years ago, he initially wanted to be a pilot. His goals changed, however, when he started working on aircraft, specifically the Chinook.
“To me, figuring out how these work and keeping them working is intriguing to me,” he said.
Standing in the shadow of majestic helicopters in a hangar at New Century AirCenter, Burns notes that many people in Gardner don’t realize there are large military aircraft right down the street.
I’ll be talking to someone and watch as a helicopter flies over, and they’ll wonder where it’s going, he said.
“People don’t even know we’re out here,” he said.
More than five decades ago, New Century AirCenter served as a U.S. Naval Base. Today, the airfield hosts private air operations, industrial businesses. It also serves as the home of 13 Chinooks, and the 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment, also known as “weekend warriors” or members of the U.S. Army Reserves.
Fred Hermstein, a Gardner resident who retired from the U.S. Army but still works for the service as a civilian, said “weekend warrior” isn’t a good name for what the reservists do.
“It’s not like that anymore,” Hermstein said. “The reserves have filled in so much for the actives.”
A Gardner resident for nine years, Burns has spent two years on active duty tours in Afghanistan. Things at the local base changed after Burns’ first tour in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2006.
“After we returned from Afghanistan, we started getting the mindset that we needed to do more with our training,” Burns said. “Training changed.”
There are things that occurred during his second tour in Afghanistan, from March 2011 to March 2012, that Burns doesn’t like to talk about.
On Aug. 6, 2011, a total of 38 U.S. service people died when a CH-47 Chinook carrying special forces was brought down by a rocket-propelled grenade.
“We had three crew members go down in that flight,” Burns recalls, his voice tight with emotion. “It’s hard to describe, other than extremely painful.”
As a member of the Army reserves, he’s learned to live with the idea that he may be called away again.
“A part of me feels like it’s inevitable that I’m going to have to go someplace else sometime,” Burns said. “I know full well what I signed up for.”
But it’s a labor of love most of the time. He recently became a warrant officer candidate, and what started out as a stop on the map of his life’s journey is starting to look more and more like a final destination.
The problem-solving part of the job – fixing an aircraft problem that’s been plaguing him – is satisfying. And he also likes training others.
“The ability to train others and teach them is something new,” he said. “It’s very satisfying to see that click in their heads.”
He imagines he’ll work for the U.S. Army Reserves as a helicopter mechanic, or aviation mechanical technician, until he retires.
He lives in Gardner with his wife, Mandy; a 14-month-old daughter, Emma; and another on the way.