Virginia Rhone: More than just a shuttle driver

Virginia Rhone, T Square Crew Shuttle Driver and considered a second mom to many of the undergraduate pilots attending ENJJPT, retires after 31 years with the 80th Flying Training Wing at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. A T-37 Crew Chief for 21 years, Virginia took on shuttling pilot crews for the last 10 years on the flight line. "They are out here learning to protect us, we need to take care of them," she said. "I have loved and been proud to be a part of the ENJJPT family."  Crews will long remember her, as Crew Bus 1 now has her name.

Virginia Rhone, T Square Crew Shuttle Driver and considered a second mom to many of the undergraduate pilots attending ENJJPT, retires after 31 years with the 80th Flying Training Wing at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. A T-37 Crew Chief for 21 years, Virginia took on shuttling pilot crews for the last 10 years on the flight line. "They are out here learning to protect us, we need to take care of them," she said. "I have loved and been proud to be a part of the ENJJPT family." Crews will long remember her, as Crew Bus 1 now has her name.

SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --

Almost 6,300 NATO fighter pilots were trained during the 31 years that Mrs. Virginia Rhone has been part of the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program at Sheppard.

Born in Wichita Falls, her musician father was a member of the popular country band, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.  The group is known for creating “western swing” improvisational dance in the 1930s and 40s. Their hit, “San Antonio Rose,” sold more than two million copies.

The family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma when the band relocated and several of her younger brothers were born. Texas called her back as a young woman and she returned to find a job at the nearby base.

Hired on by the aircraft maintenance corporation, Northrup Grumman, in the mid-80s, she trained for two years to become a certified T-37 Crew Chief.

A crew chief is the last to touch the jet before it takes off and the first to touch it as soon as it lands.  For every sortie, there are the pre- and post-flight checks, inspections, and all aspects of maintenance for the aircraft in every possible weather scenario.  The mission begins and ends with the crew chief.

Coincidentally, Virginia was a T-37 crew chief when the current 80th Flying Training Wing commander, Colonel Gregory Keeton, was an undergraduate student pilot earning his wings through the ENJJPT program in 1995.

After 21 years as a maintainer, she put away her wrenches and transferred to shuttling flight crews along the T-37, T-38 and T-6 ramps on Crew Bus 1 at Sheppard AFB for the past decade.

Miss Virginia, or Ginny, or Mama, as she’s known by so many pilots, has a close-hold secret of her own -- she’s afraid to fly. 

When asked what advice she’d give a new crew chief or crew bus driver, 31 years of emotion took hold.

"They are like my own and they are here learning how to protect us... we need to take care of them," she said. "I have loved and been proud to be part of the ENJJPT family."

As part of her retirement farewell, Crew Bus 1, Virginia’s bus for ten years, now bears her name on its side.

ENJJPT celebrates its 35th anniversary this year with 7,100 combat pilots trained for the NATO alliance.

The program, partnering 13 NATO nations in the creation of fighter pilots, enfolds a small American town into the larger global community on many levels.  Through their elementary school, Virginia’s grandson is best friends with an Italian ENJJPT pilot’s son and their families have become close.

It goes without saying, Miss Virginia has done her part to ensure the success and longevity of the ENJJPT Program, one flight check, one shuttle ride, and one hug at a time.