WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Having grown up in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, John Steinbacher always had a love for airplanes, aviation, and aerospace. The area is known for Lycoming Engines, one of the top jet engine manufacturers, and the former Piper Aircraft plant is right down the road from where Steinbacher was raised.
“I’ve always liked airplanes, and I was always a mechanical guy with my hands,” Steinbacher said.
After seeing several upperclassmen drafted into the Army, many of which never returned home, Steinbacher decided to join the Air Force in November 1968.
Working in field maintenance, the young airman would begin a 26-year-long career in the Air Force assessing and rebuilding aircraft damaged in Vietnam.
“What would it take to rebuild this thing? You name it. We did it all,” Steinbacher said.
During his time in tech school, he was trained as an initial support team member for F-111As, an aircraft that would later be used in the Air Force’s largest heavy bomber operation since World War II (WWII).
“The 428th, 429th & 430th F-4 groups, we deployed to Tahkli Air Base in Thailand,” Steinbacher said. “We relieved an F-4 squadron, and we started and engaged in Linebacker II.”
Steinbacher says Operation Linebacker II, also known as the Christmas Bombings, was the result of peace talks between the U.S. and North Vietnam stalling in December of 1972.
“It was saturation bombing to the maximum,” Steinbacher said. “We did ’em around the clock for three or four weeks and got their attention, and they came back to the peace talks, so we did our job and went home.”
After Vietnam, Steinbacher would spend the next four years maintaining F-4 Phantom II aircraft while stationed at Bentwaters-Woodbridge Royal Air Base in England. Eventually, he would be briefly stationed in Korea before sharing his skills and know-how as an air training command instructor back in the states.
“I’d be out on the road for six months. Different bases all the way from Florida all the way to Montana,” Steinbacher said.
He was eventually stationed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where a career-changing move took flight.
“The Master Sergeant that was in charge of maintenance, he told my chief that he had a job for me,” Steinbacher said. “He said, ‘You’re the guy I want ‘cuz you got moxie!’… I don’t what that means yet.’
The job involved at least eight different modifications to the C5-A aircraft: the largest Air Force transport aircraft at the time.
“We cut the wings off the C-5s, put new wings on and a rebuilt center section,” Steinbacher said.
Just before the last plane was to be fully modified, Steinbacher says disaster struck quite literally.
“Lightning struck the airplane, blew up the left wing,” Steinbacher said. “We had everybody and their brother looking at the plane.”
After the manufacturer deemed the plane should be scrapped, Steinbacher proved he could fix the damage against all odds.
“I had a two-star general tell my boss, ‘That man doesn’t know the word ‘can’t”… It’s the only wing replacement done on a C5-A on base level in the history of the Air Force,” Steinbacher said. “It was just like I said. I found a way, you know, you just find a way.”
Steinbacher’s ‘moxie’ would land him at Strategic Air Command (SAC) Headquarters, where he would participate in a number of special projects before retiring in 1995.
Something he says he’s especially proud of: the tradition carried on in his family.
His granddaughter is attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where she is also a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) squad leader.
If you would like to nominate a veteran for our Veteran Salute, email KSN reporter Hannah Adamson at firstname.lastname@example.org.