Eagle Profile

Paul Wesley Airey

Paul Wesley Airey served as the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force from 1967 to 1969.  Born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he was inspired to join the Navy because of the prestige of the US Navy Falls Shipyard in the Boston area.  However, a belligerent chief petty officer in the recruiting office prompted young Paul to go down the street to the Army Air Forces recruiter instead. He joined the military after completing 2 years of high school, desiring to be an aerial gunner.  After completing basic training in the fall of 1942, he soon found himself training to be a radio operator-aerial gunner on the B-24 Liberator. In the spring of 1944, Airey was assigned to a bomber squadron under the Fifteenth Air Force, flying missions as a part of the Combined Bomber Offensive.  He was flying his 28th combat mission when his aircraft was critically damaged by enemy flak.  Forced to bail out, he was soon captured and beaten by hostile farmers.  He spent over 10 months in three different POW camps before being liberated in May 1945. 

After World War II, he spent 6 years as a radio school instructor at Scott Field.  In 1951, as the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) of communications at Naha AB, Okinawa, his ingenuity and initiative helped save millions of dollars in electronic equipment that was being destroyed by the heat and humidity.  For his efforts he was awarded the Legion of Merit-an uncommon decoration for an enlisted man. For the next 14 years, he performed first sergeant duties at five different bases.  He considered his time as a “First Shirt” to be the most rewarding of his career. In 1966, the Air Force created the position of Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF). Selected from among 21 major command nominees, Airey took office in January 1967 and served as the senior enlisted advisor for General John McConnell, Air Force chief of staff.  Realizing low enlisted retention was problematic, in part by a poor promotion system, he introduced a more equitable process called the Weighted Airman Promotion System, still in use today.

He also saw the need for more advanced management and leadership training for senior enlisted ranks, which led to the stand up of the Senior NCO Academy. After his term as CMSAF, he was assigned to Tyndall AFB, Florida where he completed his 30 years of service.  Chief Airey remained close to the Air Force, serving in positions with the Air Force Sergeants Association and the Air Force Association.  He is also a member of the Board of Trustees for the Airmen Memorial Museum and a member of the Air Force Memorial Foundation and Air University Foundation.  He now lives in Panama City, Florida, and continues to make speaking engagements, usually at leadership schools and NCO/SNCO academy functions.

Years Honored:


2006 Lithograph

Lithograph Setting(s):

On 8 July 1944, then-Technical Sergeant Airey was on his 28th combat mission as a radio operator-aerial gunner on the B-24 Liberator.  His aircraft was badly damaged by enemy flak shortly after "bombs away," when the pilot ordered the crew to bail out.  Airey immediately jumped out of the camera hatch.  During his slow descent back to earth, he destroyed his cipher card scattering it into the wind, then lit a cigarette and waited for the inevitable.  He was captured upon landing and spent almost 10 months in multiple German POW camps.