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Best of both worlds: civilian pilot to Air Force maintainer

Justin Akaka flies a Cessna 172 over the Hawaiian Islands, July 26, 2018.

Justin Akaka flies a Cessna 172 over the Hawaiian Islands, July 26, 2018. Akaka enlisted in the Air Force in March 2019 and is now an 18th Aircraft Maintenance Unit environmental and electrical systems journeyman. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Justin Akaka, an 18th Aircraft Maintenance Unit environmental and electrical systems journeyman, poses for a photo on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, May 4, 2021.

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Justin Akaka, an 18th Aircraft Maintenance Unit environmental and electrical systems journeyman, poses for a photo on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, May 4, 2021. Akaka earned his private pilot license prior to joining the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jose Miguel T. Tamondong)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Justin Akaka, an 18th Aircraft Maintenance Unit environmental and electrical systems journeyman, installs an F-16 Fighting Falcon component, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, May 4, 2021.

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Justin Akaka, an 18th Aircraft Maintenance Unit environmental and electrical systems journeyman, installs an F-16 Fighting Falcon component, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, May 4, 2021. As a licensed pilot himself, Akaka is able to apply his flying expertise while working as a maintainer. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jose Miguel T. Tamondong)

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --

”What kind of aircraft do you fly?” Possibly the most popular question asked to those who serve in the U.S. Air Force. A common misconception but not entirely invalid especially for Senior Airman Justin Akaka who is both an aircraft maintainer and a licensed pilot.

Akaka, an 18th Aircraft Maintenance Unit environmental and electrical systems journeyman, earned his private pilot license in November 2018, just a couple of months prior to his enlistment.

“I started training for my pilot’s license in August of 2017 and spent a little over a year with a flight instructor flying between the Hawaiian Islands,” said Akaka. “I was 20 at the time and considered it a major accomplishment to be able to fly across the open water and arrive at another island in the middle of the Pacific.”

Born and raised in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, Akaka was inspired to pursue a PPL after experiencing and falling in love with the feeling of being in complete control of an aircraft flying thousands of feet above ground.

“A highschool friend of mine had come back home shortly after earning his private pilot’s license and took me on one of his rides,” he said. “It was an eye-opening experience to see someone I had grown up with for years somehow flying an aircraft. Something the average person would assume to be difficult to learn by themselves.”

One of Akaka’s favorite parts of flying is being able to look down from the sky and enjoy the views that can only be afforded while in an aircraft. 

“There's nothing more breathtaking than looking out the cockpit and seeing the land around you from a new perspective,” he said. “You get a feeling for how small we really are when you can hold up a penny and cover your entire house.”

Having flown a Cessna 172 Skyhawk and a Gruman AA-5A Cheetah ignited Akaka’s passion for flying which also played a role in his decision to join the Air Force in March 2019. 

“My passion for flying led me to the Air Force simply because the branch is known for having airpower,” he said. “I never originally intended to join a service after graduating but felt I should learn a valuable skill with hands-on training after a few years being out of school.”

Overwhelmed by the vast selection of jobs, Akaka signed up for an open mechanical contract and feels very fortunate to land a job that allows him to work close to an aircraft--this time as a maintainer.

As a pilot with over 70 hours of flight time, Akaka is able to apply his flying knowledge and experience in certain aspects of his job. An extremely coincidental and convenient background to have as a maintainer. 

“When it comes to troubleshooting an issue with a jet, having an understanding of what pilots are doing in the air can help pinpoint what may be happening within the aircraft causing a fault,” he said.

On the other hand, as a maintainer, Akaka had gained an extensive understanding of an aircraft’s design and technology which helps him make smart decisions when flying one.

“As a private pilot you have to know the inside and out of your aircraft since there’s not much to help you in an emergency,” he said. “Being an electrician helps me better make safe choices while in the air.”

Having a flying background keeps Akaka grounded as he stays humble and doesn’t consider himself any better than his peers who have never been in a cockpit.

“They have their own experiences that bring a whole new skillset to the flightline,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot and have come a long way from where I started, but I also have a lot to learn and there’s tons of opportunities to grow.”

One enjoyment he gets as a maintainer and a flyer is the chance to always be at an airport.

“There’s just something about watching giant metal marvels of engineering pick themselves off the ground and fade into the sky that I just can’t get enough of,” said Akaka.

Akaka has planned out his long term career plan and it revolves around his love for aviation. 

“I'm fully set on making the Air Force my career until retirement,” he said. “I plan to commission someday so I can fly for the Air Force, and after that, fly for a commercial business. I want to do what I love for as long and I can.”

Over his years of service, he has met other Airmen who are interested in getting their own license to fly. He’s taken it upon himself to lead them in the right direction.

“I always tell anyone who's interested to just go for it. You don't need to be a genius to be able to fly,” Akaka said. “There are so many different opportunities and variations of licenses that you can choose from, so don't feel pressured that you can't accomplish even the most basic rating. You lose 100% of the opportunities you choose not to partake in.”