Ketchikan man honored by FAA for years as aviation mechanic
KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) — Expecting a small company gathering in honor of his 70th birthday, Stephen Sustarich was surprised to receive instead the Federal Aviation Administration's most prestigious award for aircraft mechanics.
Sustarich, the quality control supervisor for Temsco Helicopters, fought back tears as he was presented the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award on Friday morning. The award recognized Sustarich for his 50-year career in the field.
The award has only been achieved by one other mechanic in Ketchikan's history. FAA Principal Maintenance Inspector Lana Bowler, who presented the award on Friday, explained that the honor is reserved for "individuals who have exhibited professionalism, skill and aviation expertise for at least 50 years in the aircraft maintenance profession, as a master mechanic."
The award is named for Charles Taylor, the mechanic who designed and built the engines for Wright brothers' first powered airplanes.
"I never thought it would happen," Sustarich said on Friday. "To be honest, I never thought I'd make 50 years. But I sure appreciate everybody and everything. It's a great honor. And for that, I want to thank everybody. Thank you very much."
His wife, Pam Sustarich, wrote a speech for the event, which was read by their friend, Bett Union-Jakubek.
"The man you are honoring today is a very private, simple, hardworking man that doesn't quit or back down from anything," Pam Sustarich wrote. "The life he has lived has been anything but ordinary or simple, and anyone that knows me knows I am his biggest fan.
She was recognized by the FAA during the ceremony as well.
"With any lifelong mechanic's career, there are many long nights, missed holidays and birthdays, equating to substantial time away from home and family as duty calls to ensure the safety of the flying public," Bowler said. ". The FAA recognizes the sacrifices made not only by the mechanic, but the mechanic's other half."
Also during the ceremony, Stephen Sustarich was presented with a Quilt of Valor from the Rainy Day Quilters, a symbol of gratitude for his service in the Army. Cheri Davis and Cathy Tillotson presented the red, white and blue quilt.
In addition to possessing excellence and 50 years in the field, recipients of the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award must be nominated by their peers.
Sustarich was nominated by more than four of them.
One of the nominators was his son Evan, who works as an aircraft mechanic in Nashville. Evan Sustarich said that his father was the reason he chose the profession.
"Great father," Evan Sustarich said following the ceremony. "Always been my hero, someone to look up to. And honestly, other people look up to him as well."
Evan Sustarich and his mother helped coordinate the event, which included a barbecue and an extensive display of photographs from Stephen Sustarich's career. The event took months of planning on the part of the family, Temsco and the FAA.
"It was a lot of work trying to keep it hidden from him," Evan Sustarich said. "That's the biggest part, because he notices everything."
Stephen Sustarich's career in aviation began in 1967, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. After attending aviation maintenance school at Fort Eustis, Virginia, he served two tours in Vietnam maintaining helicopters.
Sustarich remained in the Army following his service overseas. He said he flew in an Army medevac helicopter for five or six years while stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado.
"It was actually before there were EMS helicopters," he explained. "When the military was doing it, we were basically doing everything that EMS does today."
At Fort Carson, Sustarich also met his future wife, who was managing a beauty shop.
In her speech on Friday, Pam Sustarich highlighted the sacrifices her husband made on behalf of his crew and those they protected.
"Stephen had always volunteered to work on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day so that the guys could be home with their families," she said.
"Shortly after the nuptials, we were to have a day off together, because our schedules didn't mesh well," she continued. "He was called in to check one of the helicopters, and I pitched a bit of a snit. And will never forget his response — 'I have people's lives in my hands.'"
The Sustariches would return to Fort Eustis, Virginia, before continuing to Germany; Fort Hood, Texas; and finally, Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
In 1988, Stephen Sustarich retired from the U.S. Army, with the rank of chief warrant officer 3. Temsco hired him the following year. He worked as a line mechanic and a field mechanic, primarily on Bell 212 helicopters. The job involved maintaining the helicopters in Ketchikan, but also following them into the field on charter jobs, often for several months at a time. Among these jobs, Sustarich assisted firefighters in Interior Alaska and provided humanitarian relief on the Caribbean island of Montserrat following a 1995 volcanic eruption.
In 2002, Sustarich was promoted to Temsco's quality control supervisor. He became responsible for overseeing maintenance, inspections and parts on all of Temsco's more than 40 aircraft.
In their nominations, Sustarich's peers spoke highly of his ability and the moral character he's displayed in the position.
"He has really looked after the people, the mechanics, the pilots, all of his fellow employees, his employer and your customers, the flying public," wrote David Frederick, a Juneau-based mechanic and pilot.
Pam Sustarich said that she appreciated the promotion because it meant that her husband didn't have to spend much time away from home anymore. He's held the position ever since.
And after 50 years working on helicopters, Sustarich isn't showing any signs of quitting.
"I enjoy every day of it," he said. "It's always changing, and it's always fun. Once I don't enjoy it anymore, that's when I'll actually retire. Right now, I enjoy it every day, and I'll keep working."
Information from: Ketchikan (Alaska) Daily News, http://www.ketchikandailynews.com