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Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Leo Marquez.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Leo Marquez. (Wayne Specht / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — If it was an honest answer he wanted, retired Lt. Gen. Leo Marquez said, he always knew who to turn to during most of his 33 years of service in the Air Force.

“When you’re a general officer, the colonels tell you what they think you wanted to hear,” said the 71-year-old Marquez. “You ask a sergeant and he’ll tell you, that’s the stupidest thing he ever heard of. I always appreciated the honesty of the enlisted man.”

Marquez came to Misawa’s Tohoku Enlisted Club to attend a banquet Friday evening honoring the logistics professional of the year.

After the Albuquerque, N.M., resident retired in 1987 as a three-star general, the Air Force honored him by naming the prestigious maintenance awards in his honor.

The annual Lt. Gen. Leo Marquez awards recognize maintenance professionals in the aircraft, munitions, missile and communication fields for sustained job performance, knowledge and involvement with generating aircraft sorties.

“I was as surprised as anyone after they told me they were naming them after me,” he said.

Trained to be an Air Force fighter pilot, he flew F-102 fighters at Bitburg Air Base, Germany, until 1962, when a medical condition grounded him. He then attended an Air Force maintenance school in Illinois.

“I fell in love with the maintenance career field,” Marquez said. “It appealed to me to be around enlisted men and I learned of the hardships they were going through.”

After attaining the rank of lieutenent general, Marquez was named deputy chief of staff for logistics and engineering at Air Force headquarters in 1983 — a posting that let him change how the Air Force developed new generations of aircraft and procured parts, and let him lobby for better-trained maintenance troops.

His legacy, still felt today, earned him the moniker “grandfather of Air Force maintenance.”

During the 70s, Marquez said, the Air Force was developing a new generation of airplanes that required intensive maintenance.

“Engineers used to tell me airplanes flew because they obeyed the natural law of physics and dynamics,” he said.

From his viewpoint, that wasn’t true.

“They flew because maintenance people threw them up in the air at 9 a.m. and caught them at night,” he said. “They made it happen.”

He said he strived to improve flightline maintenance troops’ working conditions and practices: “We made sure they got additional training beyond basic technical schools so they are more valuable to the Air Force, and to themselves.

“I was pretty single-minded about it. My primary responsibility was to make it easier for them to do their jobs.”

He said he’s proudest of the Research and Maintenance 2000 program, begun in the 1980s to rid sophisticated fighters of inferior parts. The program’s goal: Make Air Force aircraft electronic equipment as reliable as possible by 2000. Marquez called it “the best thing we ever did.”

“We were putting parts in the F-16 that Mattel wouldn’t put in its toys,” he said. “It was because of the military specifications” written for the parts.

He ordered many of those specifications replaced with ones assuring better reliability.

“Because of the way we wrote them, we were the problem,” he said. “We took a broad axe to them and threw most of them out.”

Marquez said he was pleased with how maintenance workers made it possible for the Air Force to launch thousands of sorties during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“Maintenance guys on the ground made that happen,” he said.

He did, however, voice concerns about the Air Force’s aging fleet of fighter, tanker and cargo aircraft.

“After the Vietnam War, everything we flew was wearing out so we came up with the F-15, F-16 and the A-10,” he said. “Now these are wearing out too. It’s like a sine wave.”

Marquez said although he’s never understood why newer fighter aircraft — such as the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — “cost so much,” they’re vitally needed: “They’re a big generational step forward in technology.”

Another pressing concern, he said, is th need for more new cargo aircraft like the C-17 and a replacement for the venerable KC-135 aerial tankers.

“The C-17 production line will remain open another 10 years because we need the airlift capability,” he said, “and the Boeing 767 tanker will be a great tanker replacement if we can figure out a way to buy them.”

Asked if he’s pleased with how his successors are running the Air Force since he retired 16 years ago, Marquez had a succinct answer.

“I trained them well,” he said.

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