TSgt Kamanu Fernandez, USAF

Me:  You’re a flight engineer for the United States Air Force.  Would it be reasonable to assume you like working with airplanes?

TSgt Kamanu Fernandez:  I’ve been infatuated with airplanes since I could walk.  My grandpa and I would sit at the end of the runway and watch the planes go by.  I joined the Air Force in 2003.  I was an aircraft electrician first.  When I was studying and learning about planes, it wasn’t like work.  It was more like a hobby.

Me:  What’s it like to deal with an emergency mid-flight?

TSgt Fernandez:  Any malfunctions or in-flight emergencies, I try to eliminate the malfunctions to make sure we can still complete the missions.  For emergencies, my goal is to mitigate the problem, isolate it, and get the aircraft back on the ground.  About five months ago, we had one of the larger emergencies that the FAA considered an emergency.  For the Air Force, anything we have to open up an emergency check list for, it’s considered an emergency even if the FAA doesn’t recognize it as an emergency.  We had taken off for a mission on the east coast and then we had an engine fire.  I was like, ‘Oh, cool, I’ve never had one of these before!’  It was a malfunction in one of our engines that required us to shut it down.  I just explained to the others, ‘Right now, we have indications of a fire.  We visually don’t see a fire, but we’re going to honor the light…’  We then worked on an evacuation plan.

Me:  Hearing the words fire and malfunction while on a plane can be pretty unsettling.  How do you manage to stay calm?  

TSgt Fernandez:  They call it being snake bit.  I’ve had a lot of emergencies aboard aircrafts.  Just the training you go through, you almost have this weird separation between reality and simulation.  You do it so much in the simulator that when it happens in the airplane, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m back in the sim.’  You just handle it like you’re back in the simulator.  Over the years, you tend to gain more knowledge and experience over the systems and how they operate, so you can mitigate a lot of the problems before they become emergencies.

Most of our pilots are good about trusting engineers because of our training, same with navigators.  We have this running joke.  You have the pilot, the engineer, and the navigator.  The navigator’s going to get you lost, the engineer’s going to get you killed, and the pilot’s going to crash the aircraft. So what’s the pilot’s job?  Not to let the engineer kill you.  What’s the engineer’s job?  Not to let the pilot crash the plane and to make sure the navigator doesn’t get us lost.  The navigator makes sure we don’t break the plane or get ourselves killed.  You’re always cross checking each other’s jobs.  There’s a ton, a huge sense of trust and responsibility built into what we all do.

Me:  Confessions of a flight engineer.  Go!

TSgt Fernandez:  We like to sing.  We do.  When you deploy and take off, you’re usually really busy for about the first few hours.  Then you have a long trek into another country or where ever you’re going.  That’s usually a very boring time because you’re not on station yet.  You can’t listen to the radio…Everybody knows Disney songs.  I once ran up almost $100 worth of Disney albums on iTunes.  We love Aladdin’s A Whole New World.  The navigators went for a while on the Aladdin album when we were flying over the Middle East. How fitting is that?  It was very entertaining.

Some of us are really superstitious.  I stopped bringing chicken on the airplane for the longest time because every time I brought chicken on the plane, something broke or we had emergencies…On some of our best flights, we had this pink pony on a stick, like a little kid’s stick horse.  We started to carry the pink pony in my backpack.  The days I didn’t have it were when we’d have problems.  So now we strap it next to the window on the plane.

Most flight engineers were prior maintainers.  So there are practical jokes we pull on the maintenance side.  We control the power, the heating and cooling, all the environmental aspects of the airplane.  So if you have a crew that’s being annoying, you can make them really, really cold or really, really hot!

There are also some jokes that make the time pass faster when we’re stuck in an aluminum tube.  One of my buddies loves to give out hydrogenated, super sugary, super fatty and carb loaded snacks on the flights, like Otis Spunkmeyer muffins. Our lavatory on the planes is not the neatest.  Another buddy used a chocolate muffin and molded it into a shape of a turd.  He left it on the floor before walking out nonchalantly.  We do stuff like that to keep ourselves entertained on 16 hour flights.  For me, it’s all about the camaraderie.














Chrichelle Fernandez

Me:  You were diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in June of 2015.  How did you find out and what has it been like to live with MS?

Chrichelle Fernandez:  My husband, KJ, was gone on a TDY and during most of that time I had been experiencing severe pain in my right ear, down to the back of my neck. After a week, the pain subsided, but turned into numbness from my right ear that extended down my right arm. After two trips to the emergency room, a CT scan, several tests and finally an MRI – a neurologist confirmed the diagnosis.

KJ was on speakerphone when we got the news.  I was crying so hard because I was in shock. The doctor was talking more to KJ than me because he knew I couldn’t process it all while I was crying. I was in shock for about 6 months. It took me about that long to even have a conversation with our 12 year old son, Daniel, to let him know.  Our 5 year old son, Tyler, just knows mommy is sick.

In the very beginning, it was so overwhelming emotionally.  I just couldn’t comprehend it. Nobody has MS in my family.  I’d ask, ‘Why is this happening to me?  Is it going to get worse?  How much worse?’  I just kept thinking of the kids…I was just more worried about the kids.  KJ helped take care of his grandmother who had progressive MS and she was bedridden the rest of her life. I know that was another sign that God placed KJ in my life – because God knew that KJ would know how to help take care of me.

I have the relapse-remitting type that the doctors believe may have started back in 2005 with an initial case of optic neuritis in my right eye. I have to take self-injections three times per week, on top of other medication, and tons of vitamins. I haven’t had any major flare-ups since then, aside from a tingly feeling on my neck and in my hands once in a while, but the heat and stress will deplete my energy level some days and I’ll need to lay down for a little bit. So right now, the summer heat hasn’t been very nice to me!

I’d say the biggest challenge as a mom with MS is keeping things as normal as possible for the kids. I try to make sure I’m active in their school lives, we attend church regularly, spend time with friends and do fun things together as a family. I try to establish routines and keep them busy. I may have to pull double-duty since KJ is gone often, but it’s important to me to do my best to make sure the kids have a healthy and memorable childhood. I don’t ever want them to think we can’t do things because of our work schedules or that I have MS.

I’m thankful I had such loving parents who always made sure my brothers and I got to experience fun things.  We traveled throughout Europe when my dad was stationed in Germany for eight years with the Army. So I’ve always made it a point to do active things with the kids, such as go to museums, zoos, kid-friendly shows and concerts, water parks, play sports, spend time with friends, etc. They should be able to enjoy their childhood.  I plan out weekends with different activities, but make sure to add in some lazy days to just relax at home.

I’m a very active person.  I just don’t use the ‘Oh, I have MS, I can’t do that.’  I work full-time at American Fidelity in the marketing department.  It’s a very family oriented place.  It helps to know that my team is aware of my diagnosis. My VP said, ‘We know that once you feel better you’ll be back to giving 110% like usual. For now, I’d like you to focus on giving maybe an average of 75%.’  I’m fortunate that my position allows me to work from home twice a week if I ever need to, in case I’m not feeling 100% or like I’m able to leave the house. I also hula dance with a local Hawaiian dance group and we perform every now and then at different events. I try to do my best to go forward without pushing myself too much because I’ll end up in bed the rest of the day or the next day.

Doing research on MS helped to give me a sense of hope. I got involved in a MS support group and I’ve met some awesome people there.  KJ and I also recently signed up for a new gym together and that has helped get my energy levels up. I know there are worse medical conditions out there.  I prepare myself for what I need to get through the day, the things I can do to make sure I don’t keep spiraling downhill.  I just try to live normally because you can’t stop living life because of the fears. I’m not going to just let MS take over my life.  I’m going to keep living my life even with MS!