8 AS Airman’s career is a slam ‘dunk’

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Tryphena Mayhugh
  • 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

For a quarter of a century, one Airman has dedicated his life to serving in the Air Force and is now getting ready to retire from the same squadron he first entered at the start of his career.

Master Sgt. Michael “Dunk” Dunkelberger, 62nd Operations Group evaluator loadmaster on loan from the 8th Airlift Squadron, has spent the last 25 years delivering troops and cargo around the world as an Air Force loadmaster.

As a brand new Airman at age 18, Dunkelberger traveled across country from his New Jersey home to be a part of the 8th AS at McChord. Fast-forward more than two decades and he is back in the Pacific Northwest and the 8th AS to bookend his career.

“It’s been great to be back in the squadron I came up in,” Dunkelberger said. “I’ve always been proud to be a ‘Workhorse’ and [this squadron] has always been the squadron to be in at McChord as far as I’m concerned. Its roll your sleeves up, go get dirty, get the work done and that’s just what we’re going to do, and I love that.”

Dunkelberger carried that spirit of grit and determination with him as he continued his journey in the Air Force, but he never lost sight of what was most important to him.

Family Comes First

Much of Dunkelberger’s time in the Air Force was spent travelling the world and helping transition big changes, but he said the best part has been building his family with his wife Kathy and their son, Pilot.

“The highlight of my career was when I finally got to adopt my kid,” he said. “He’s Alaskan native and if I wasn’t in the Air Force, I never would have been up there. Also getting married, I met my wife up in Alaska, and again, I wouldn’t have been there without being in the Air Force.”

Dunkelberger not only makes time for his own family, but also ensures other Airmen have time to be with family when considering whom to select for assignments.

“His family is very important to him,” said Senior Master Sgt. Robert Wyman, 8th AS superintendent, who has known Dunk since 2011. “He has pictures at his desk, he always talks about them. He keeps family in his crosscheck whenever dealing with personnel matters or for loadmasters, whenever things come up. Telling the story of how he has served over the years, having the bedrock of a great spouse and the son they have raised together has really helped him.”


Dunkelberger was a part of many large changes in the Air Force.

During his first stint at McChord from 1996 to 2001, he was a part of the 8th AS’s transition from C-141 Starlifters to C-17 Globemaster IIIs.

He also took part in the air mobility operations group change to the 621st Contingency Response Wing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, when he was stationed there from 2003 to 2007.

While stationed at Elmendorf Air Base, Alaska, from 2007 to 2015, he once again helped a squadron transition to a new aircraft when he helped the 517th AS move from C-130 Hercules to C-17s.

Finally, since coming back to McChord in 2015, he helped close down the 10th AS before returning to the 8th AS.

The 8th AS’s motto is “First in War, First in Peace,” and that mentality followed Dunkelberger throughout his time in the Air Force. Looking back over his career, he said he most enjoyed being a mobility Airman and the versatility that mission offered.

“We do airdrop, which is delivering the combat forces, but what I love about our mobility role is we’re not just combat delivering warfighters,” he said. “We’re also taking humanitarian aid to other countries, which gives America so much positive perception. It’s better than anything we can do with a bullet. When you have that multi-faceted role that we do, it’s a lot more rewarding.”

One of his most rewarding assignments was helping evacuate people out of New Orleans from Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“It was nothing but a torn down airport,” Dunkelberger said. “We got our guys there and started getting people to shelter, help and everything immediately. When they started bussing people, there were lines for just forever outside that airport.

“I was in charge of the medevac ramp and loading people who were on litters on airplanes and it was pretty eye-opening,” he continued. “Knowing that me being there, it could have been anybody, but it was my opportunity and I was able to save lives, it was pretty neat.”

It was difficult for Dunkelberger to narrow it down to just one highlight from his career, but being chosen to go up to the operations group to be an evaluator loadmaster was an honor and gave him the opportunity to pass along his knowledge and expertise cultivated over time to other loadmasters.

“Every 17 months, aircrew members are required to have a check ride to make sure they can do their job and I am one of the people who makes sure they are within our standards,” Dunkelberger said. “When I was young, being an operations group load evaluator was a big deal. They didn’t just let anyone come up and do that. It tells you you’re an evaluator above the cut.”

It came as no surprise to Dunkelberger’s leadership at the 8th AS that he was selected to be an evaluator for the group.

“There was no fine choice there,” Wyman said. “He’s a rock and pillar in that office, which helps the entire operations group. He is our wise, older loadmaster that has been mentoring and bringing up many younger generation loadmasters for years.”

In 2019, Dunkelberger was selected to be a part of the 62nd Airlift Wing’s C-17 West Coast Demonstration Team, who travel around the world to highlight the aircraft’s capabilities at air shows.

“It was a fun year,” Dunkelberger said. “It’s fun to be around professionals who know what they’re doing and everyone is talking the same language. Also being able to get out there and do the recruiting message for the Air Force. It’s not only pilots who fly, so they see an enlisted member like me walking around in the flight suit with the pilots and being able to talk as well about the aircraft as them.”

McChord History

Dunkelberger’s career has been steeped in McChord history. He helped bring in the C-17, the newest, most flexible cargo aircraft to enter the Air Force to replace the older, outdated C-141. Unfortunately, he did not have much time to slow down after the transition.

On April 7, 2002, the last C-141 took off from McChord with “Goodbye McChord” and “Hello Sunshine” spelled out with tape on either side of its nose. The aircraft was on its way to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, to be retired. Because of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Dunk was not around to see the plane leave, as he had been out the door in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Dunkelberger was sent on missions for weeks at a time and would be home for 12 hours then sent out again on another long mission. Throughout all that, he was able to see the difference between the new, more capable C-17 and the older C-141.

“It’s really hard to compare the missions [between C-141s and C-17s], because when we went to war after Sept. 11, everything changed,” Dunkelberger said. “In the C-141, we just had a different mobility way of doing things. As far as the aircraft, there’s no comparison – the C-17 is way more of a capable airplane.”

Designed and put into production in the early 60s, the C-141 wasn’t built with large cargo in mind, whereas the C-17 was and had features like a stronger floor. The C-141’s floor could take 50 pounds per square inch, whereas the C-17 could get up to 180 pounds per square inch.

“That’s the technical nerd stuff that loadmasters think about,” Dunkelberger said. “Just those two numbers, one is over triple the other one. That’s how much stronger the floor is. You’re not worried about putting a hole in it as much as you are on a C-141. The C-17 was designed around an Abrams tank, so being able to put that in there, it would just buckle the other airframe.”

Dunkelberger also helped deactivate the 10th AS; an aircrew training squadron that had been a part of the 62nd Airlift Wing since 2003. In 2014, the Air Force announced the squadron would be deactivated for the fifth time in its 76-year history by the summer of 2016. With Dunk’s help, the squadron was retired on May 6, 2016.

Dunkelberger’s work ethic and expertise has been apparent throughout his career.

“While we’re extremely proud of his service and happy for him and his family to go off into the sunset and start a new chapter in their life, it’s going to be a significant loss for our career field and the 62nd Operations Group,” Wyman said. “He is a steadfast ‘Workhorse,’ very thorough and passionate about his profession and Airmen; an outstanding professional, Airman and friend to all.”

Twenty-five years is a long time to dedicate to something, and with joining at 18 years old, the Air Force has been a part of Dunkelberger’s life longer than it has not. He plans to retire to Florida with his family, but will always have the memories of his time as a loadmaster in the Air Force.

“I love my job; I think it’s the greatest job in the Air Force,” Dunkelberger said. “I have had many opportunities to see a lot of different things and meet great people. I’m proud of my time on the C-141 and I am proud of my time on the C-17.”

According to Dunkelberger, the airframe he was flying on didn’t matter, it was the crew he was flying with that was most important, and he made life-long friends in both.