BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --
Master Sgt. Dennis Varnado doesn’t want to be defined as a hero.
“If I want to be known for anything, it’s that I always do a job right and I try to treat people well,” said Varnado, a flight chief assigned to the 307th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron here.
That being said, the title of hero may be hard for Varnado to avoid. In the past few months, he found himself in two situations in which he became the man of the hour.
His mettle was tested was on a summer afternoon in August 2017. Varnado, Senior Master Sgt. Wesley Phillips and Master Sgt. Brandon Smith, all assigned to the 307th AMXS, and Master Sgt. Thomas Gooch, assigned to the 11th AMXS, were on the flight line monitoring and mentoring technicians performing maintenance on B-52 Stratofortresses.
“Phillips and Gooch came up to me and Smith’s vehicle and said ‘hey, we need to go check on one of our guys who’s not feeling good,’” said Varnado. “We get to the Airman’s vehicle and ask him if he’s ok, he looks at us, and just slumps over in his seat.”
Right away, the four supervisors pulled the unresponsive maintainer out of his vehicle and laid him on the ground.
“We were trying to get the Airman to respond when Varnado realized that he had stopped breathing, so he started giving him chest compressions,” said Phillips. “All of a sudden, the Airman took a deep breath and the color came back to his face, and in a few minutes he regained consciousness.”
The Airman was taken to the hospital and recovered from the incident.
Varnado faced even more adversity just a few months later when he found his own life in danger.
He, along with several other maintainers were at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, on June 4th supporting B-52s in a training event for 340th Weapons Squadron students.
“It was around 10 p.m., and one of the B-52s was taxiing in from its flight,” said Varnado. “As Phillips and I drove past the plane’s left wing, we saw fire under the jet.”
The flame was caused by hydraulic fluid leaking onto the jet’s number four brake. When they realized what was happening, the aircrew followed procedure by engaging the brake and exiting the aircraft. However, following procedure in this case made the fire worse.
“By applying the brake, it was like the leak was a continuous stream of gas on the fire,” said Capt. Robert Bloom, the Maintenance Operations Officer for the 307th AMXS.
As soon as they saw the blaze, maintainers on the scene sprayed the flames with 150-halon fire extinguisher, but the fire continued to burn.
“When flames came back after the initial sprays of extinguisher, Varnado knew immediately that the brakes were not released,” said Phillips. “He climbed up into the jet and kicked off the brakes, and after about two more shots of halon, the fire was out.”
Varnado’s effort to disengage the jet’s brakes placed himself in danger for a number of reasons. To get into the aircraft, he had to climb up the entry ladder about 10 to 15 feet away from the burning brakes.
There was also the potential danger of exiting the aircraft.
“Depending on how the fire progressed, he could have had to slide down a rope through the jet’s pilot or copilot window,” said Bloom. “Both of those situations had the potential to cause injury or death to himself.”
However, Varnado’s risk yielded great rewards.
“If he hadn’t entered the jet to disengage the brakes, the fire could have kept burning until the fire department arrived,” said Bloom. “Because of his brave act, Varnado saved a $58 million dollar aircraft.”
Varnado’s leadership says his reaction to the crises is a reflection of his passion for the job.
“He just has a great work ethic and attitude,” says Bloom. “He spends countless hours out on the flight line observing and mentoring his Airmen and really gives one hundred and ten percent to both the mission and the people behind it.”
Varnado is just happy to be able to do what he loves every day.
“I’ve been around planes since I was young, so this is always what I’ve wanted to do,” said Varnado. “I’ve always really enjoyed being in the Air Force Reserve and being a part of something so important.”
He also is proud of his unit’s mission.
“Our number one mission here is to provide great B-52s for the aircrews, no matter what,” said Varnado. “So again, it’s all about doing what it takes every day to get the job done.”