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News | April 6, 2017

Army aviator retires after 40 storied years

By Army Maj. Scott Montoya DCMA Boeing Mesa

Editor's note: Visit the Defense Contract Management Agency's Facebook page for more photos from Chief Payton's retirement ceremony. "Like" us while you're there for more agency stories.

MESA, Ariz., April 6, 2017 — As the song goes, “old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” and simply fading into the background would have been Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Artis Payton’s preferred way to retire. However, his friends and colleagues at Defense Contract Management Agency Boeing Mesa knew his story deserved more.

Recently the Mesa office recognized the long and distinguished career of the Department of Defense’s most senior helicopter pilot, recognizing his accomplishments and contributions to Army aviation during a career that spanned over 40 years — 40 years, three months, and 10 days to be exact. To put this in perspective, the year Payton entered service Army Gen. Mark Milley, the current chief of staff of the Army, was a freshman at Princeton University.

Payton was born in Tylertown, Mississippi, and was raised a short distance away in Columbia with his sister and three brothers. He always had a penchant for mechanics and, following high school, he worked off-shore jobs in the Gulf of Mexico. Feeling that he could somehow contribute more, and wanting to experience what the world had to offer, Payton enlisted in the Army as a cannon crewman in January 1977, one day after Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as the 39th president.

Payton continued in the artillery for over five years, reaching the rank of sergeant, when an experience near the demilitarized zone of Korea led him toward aviation. He watched as a UH-1 Huey landed nearby, the pilots departed and the crew chief went about his maintenance tasks. The pilots returned, final pre-flight inspections were performed, and the whole team took off. Payton saw an opportunity to see even more of the world — from a unique perspective — and re-enlisted as a UH-60 Blackhawk crew chief.

He spent five years as a crew chief, earning the admiration of his peers and respect of his superiors. Ultimately Payton was approached by several pilots who encouraged him to apply for flight school. He was reluctant, but submitted an application and was accepted to attend Warrant Officer Candidate School followed by flight training in 1987. Since then, Payton has continued to distinguish himself, training as both an instructor pilot and maintenance test pilot in multiple Army aircraft, and achieving the highest rank within the Army’s Warrant Officer Corps.

Payton fulfilled his dream of seeing the world, serving in Korea, Germany and Egypt, and deploying to combat on five occasions to Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan. Payton’s final assignment landed him in Mesa, where he has served as chief of flight operations for DCMA Boeing Mesa for six years, in his words, “providing the best equipment possible to the warfighter, because they deserve it.”

On Feb. 8, the members of DCMA Boeing Mesa and DCMA Phoenix gathered to take part in one of the final milestones in Payton’s career, his last flight as an Army aviator. The crowd waited as the AH-64E Apache made its approach and landed at the Boeing Mesa airfield. As is the tradition for such events, the airfield fire department paid their respect with a water arch as the aircraft taxied into parking. Friends and family members collected around Payton, offering handshakes, hugs and congratulations while others snapped photos to capture the moments.

Forty eight hours later friends and family gathered again to recognize Payton’s exemplary career with an official retirement ceremony. With an Apache as a fitting backdrop and the sound of aircraft engines in the distance, the audience sat in a hangar and listened intently as his commanders recounted 40 years of dedication and commitment in the service of the nation. The ceremony, and his career, concluded with Payton addressing the crowd, reflecting on the past, sharing his thoughts on the future, and expressing love and appreciation for all those that have been a part of his journey.

“The job was never about anything other than patriotism, anything other than a love of the greatest country on Earth,” he said. “If the Army would let me, I would start over today and do it all again.”