REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. (June 3, 2022) – The very first thing Nelson Gonzalez says he will do on his first day of retirement is wake up and take a deep breath.
“I will have to ask my wife, are you ok?” laughs Gonzalez, a quality assurance representative at the U.S. Army Redstone Test Center’s (RTC) Aviation Flight Test Directorate (AFTD). “I will just have to take that deep breath because after 50 years, it’s hard to let go. It’s going to be very hard. I’ll just take a deep breath and carry on.”
Gonzalez has been affectionately known by the nickname “Speedy” his entire career, a moniker he earned in 1972 during basic training for the Air Force as he outran other Airmen during physical fitness training.
Gonzalez grew up in Manhattan, New York, with an interest in aviation. Upon receiving a draft notice while in college, he decided to join the Air Force. He started out as as an A-7D Corsair II mechanic stationed in Tucson, Arizona. After an honorable discharge from the Air Force in 1979, he immediately went to work for NASA as an engineering technician at Edwards Air Force Base in California until 1983. Then Gonzalez became an Air Force civilian at Edwards working as a Phase Team mechanic on F-4 Phantom, F-15 Eagle, Northrop T-38 Talon, and UH-1 Cobra helicopters. In 1984, Gonzalez transitioned over to the Army and into the organization he would remain in until the end of his career, which at the time was the U.S. Army Aviation Engineering Flight Activity (AEFA). At AEFA, which was consolidated within the Aviation Technical Test Center, which then became AFTD, he has served as a fixed-wing mechanic, a flight test coordinator, and until retirement, a government quality assurance representative. After two base realignment and closure moves, he and his wife of 33 years, Astrid, and twin sons, age 31, are in North Alabama to stay.
“It doesn’t even feel like work. It was really hard to make up my mind to retire; it’s a wonderful job. It’s a job you enjoy, but it’s a lot of responsibility. It’s not an easy job,” Gonzalez said on making the decision to finally retire.
Gonzalez is one of just three remaining AEFA employees still in the AFTD. As a subject matter expert in Army aviation and conformity, he provides insight and recommends changes or solutions to technical challenges. Until retirement, he regularly inspected special instrumentation and maintenance actions on every aircraft currently in the Army inventory to include the UH-60A/L/M/K/V, AH-64D/E, CH-47D/F/G, T-6D, and C-12G.
“How do you lose that much knowledge? The policies and procedures, the standards we use today, are the things these guys figured out. The lessons learned by these guys - he may not have written the Standard Operating Procedures, but he knows them inside and out,” said Rowdy McAfee, Gonzalez’s current supervisor.
While walking with Gonzalez around the AFTD hangar, it’s easy to see the respect the workforce has for him. Inspections that require others to use multiple checklists and manuals, he does with ease, all the while explaining the work and using every moment to teach those who will one day fill his shoes. His best piece of advice for everyone in the workforce today? Find a mentor.
“Stick with them until you feel comfortable. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you don’t, you’re going to make a mistake. So if you can, avoid it by asking questions. There are no stupid questions,” advises Gonzalez. “Always ask questions. Tag along with someone with experience.”
That advice has been heeded by many in the organization. “Speedy” has always been at AFTD. He’s known many colleagues since they were what he lovingly refers to as “baby engineers”; some now serving in senior management positions.
“Speedy is a great teammate who comes to work every day excited to contribute to the flight test mission. His wealth of knowledge and terrific work ethic will be missed but he has certainly earned a little rest and relaxation. We wish him the best in his future endeavors,” said Justin Powell, deputy commander for AFTD.
Colleagues say it was not uncommon to see Speedy walking through the hangar on a day he was supposed to be using up his annual leave. He would simply forget and head in for his job which he enjoyed so much. He said his job never felt like “work”.
So after taking that deep breath, ensuring his lovely wife is indeed ok with him being home, he does plan to travel out west for some sightseeing. The man known as “Speedy” will slow down and truly enjoy a well-earned retirement.