Etheredge one of only two female mechanics in Air Evac fleet

001It may have taken her more than 23 years and many miles in this country and around the world, but Loretta Etheredge has come home to a job for which she has been training almost all her life.

“I’m doing what I love,” she said.

Etheredge is one of only two women mechanics with Air Evac Lifeline. She began working in September at the Demopolis base, located at Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital.

Getting back home was a long trip. It started when she was growing up helping her father fix motors. Always mechanically inclined, she liked the idea of joining the U.S. Navy, but at career day at Demopolis High, the Navy didn’t show up. Instead, she met with the Air Force recruiter, and her career path started in earnest.

On her test to get into the military, she scored highest in mechanics. “They try to push you into the career” that you test strongest in, she said. Air craft mechanics was far and away from being a forensic pathologist that she had dreamed of.

Her duties and training took her to various Air Force bases in Texas, Illinois and even Korea. She was qualified with an air frame license, enabling her to work with the sheet metal on planes. She patched many a bullet hole on planes that saw conflict during the Gulf War.

It was while she was in Korea, however, that her career in the Air Force came to an end after 4 ½ years. While playing softball she tore a knee, and then she was run over at work which badly injured her back.

Over the next several years she took various jobs: Ryder Truck assembly line in Pennsylvania, Alabama Aircraft Painting in Tuscaloosa, and quality control at an assembly line for truck beds in Huntsville.

While she had earned an air frame license, Etheredge’s lack of a power plant license prevented further advancement in the aviation field. That’s when she decided to take advantage of the GI bill and enroll in the aviation maintenance school in Ozark.

Once she completed her course work she was hired at Ft. Rucker to work on Blackhawk helicopters. When Air Evac opened its base in Demopolis, she tried to apply for the mechanic’s job, but by the time her application reached the office, someone else had been hired.

She was interested in coming home since both her mother, Earlene Etheridge, and sister Annette Gwinn, live here.

Hearing the job became open this summer, Etheredge applied again, and this time she was successful. After training in Columbus, Ga., and St. Louis, Mo., she now is responsible for the smooth operation of the Bell 206 which flies out of the base behind the hospital.

“It’s her job to do all the preventive maintenance and periodic inspections required for the helicopter to run smoothly. Her biggest obstacle is fighting the attitude that the job is “good enough.”

“Complacency is the most challenging thing I face because complacency can kill. I’ve seen it,” she said.

“I want to be able to sleep with my conscience every night,” she continued. “I haven’t lost one yet, and don’t want to lose one.” Four people are flying on her mechanical expertise.

Etheredge had no problems being accepted as a woman in a field that until recently has been almost exclusively reserved for men. That wasn’t always the case.

“There was big resistance in the military,” she said. Even earlier in her civilian career there was some push-back.

A lot changed when many manufacturing plants closed, and laid-off employees went back to retraining. A lot of women chose to go into mechanics.

The only other woman mechanic in Air Evac’s more than 115 bases lives in Tennessee. Her husband flies for the company. While Etheredge hasn’t met her, she called when Etheredge was in training and wished her well.