Returning home

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jody L. Ritchie
  • 302nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
James Riley was four years old, sitting at the dinner table in his Chicago home, when he first heard the word "Thailand."

His father had just received a U.S. government job offer at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base in central Thailand and was asking his family if they wanted to go. "I had no idea where Thailand was, but everyone else wanted to go and I followed the lead," said now-Chief Master Sgt. James D. Riley, chief loadmaster with the 302nd Airlift Wing and an Air Reserve Technician in the Air Force Reserve. There was no way he could have known how that seemingly small dinner conversation would change the rest of his life.

Chief Riley spent the next six years, from 1967-1972, in the Southeast Asian country of Thailand, learning the culture and language in true immersion fashion during his impressionable childhood years as he attended a Catholic school in Bangkok. He has experienced things few Westerners can relate to, including living for three months amongst monks in a Buddhist temple.

Since moving back to the U.S., he regularly returns to Thailand. His first trip back was as a teenager when he spent the summer on an island catching crabs for a friend's restaurant. Since 1994, Chief Riley has made more than 15 trips to Thailand, averaging about one visit per year.

"As a child we moved around and Thailand was the longest I spent in any one place," Chief Riley recalled. "This is home. There are parts of Thailand that haven't changed since I lived here and parts that are more modern; I love the diversity."

Not surprisingly, Thailand played a significant role in Chief Riley's career. "My neighbor worked on DC-3s at Don Muang Royal Thai Air Force Base and would occasionally bring me to work with him," said Chief Riley. "Climbing around on that DC-3 was what sparked my interest in aviation."

Thirty seven years later, with more than 6,000 hours of flying experience under his belt, Chief Riley stands on the same flight line as he did in his youth. His role this time is a bit different -he's now responsible for training his RTAF counterparts on flying the unique, challenging and demanding mission of C-130 Hercules airborne firefighting. As an Air Force Reservist assigned to the only AF Reserve unit qualified to fly the Modular Airborne Firefighting System, Chief Riley has 18 years experience with the MAFFS mission and is now using that experience to help a people and a nation that holds a special place in his heart.

Chief Riley's MAFFS experience, along with his Thai language skills, led to him being hand-picked to participate in the two week MAFFS training conducted by the 302nd AW.

"It's an absolute honor to come back in an official capacity and help the Thai people," said Chief Riley as he stood among a group of RTAF members. He then effortlessly switched to Thai and laughed with his new RTAF friends.

"Without a doubt, this is the highlight of my 27 year Air Force career."

The DC-3s that set a young James Riley on his career path have since been relocated from Don Muang RTAFB; but as luck would have it, they are now located at Phitsanulok RTAFB, which is where the flying portion of the MAFFS training took place. Standing on the flight line in Phitsanulok, Chief Riley looked at the polished white, blue and gold DC-3s and wondered which one was the aircraft that changed the course of his life. "They've been upgraded, but these are the same planes," said the chief.

"Chief Riley exemplifies how the unique background and experience of a Reservist can make a difference not only for the Air Force, but the United States," commented Lt. Col. Corey L. Steinbrink, MAFFS training mission commander and MAFFS C-130 pilot with the 302nd AW. "What we are doing here isn't just about a flying mission; it's about strengthening ties between the U.S. and our oldest ally in Southeast Asia and he's been an important part of the mission."