National Engineers Week February 19-25, 2012

  • Published
  • By Susan Wolbarst
  • AFRPA Public Affairs
Paul Bernheisel often wears a hard hat while working in the field.
But figuratively, he calls himself "two-hatted," because he's an AFCEE (Air Force Center for Engineering and the Environment) engineer working for the Air Force Real Property Agency (AFRPA.) Sometimes he's called a field engineer and sometimes a project manager, depending which agency is describing him. Sometimes he's managing construction or water and sewer utility systems, other times he's overseeing environmental cleanup activities.

"We're all on the same mission," he said. "There's been a lot of overlap all along - I can see why they're combining," he said, referring to the pending merger of AFCEE, AFRPA, and the Air Force Civil Engineer Support Agency (AFCESA) - three field operating agencies -- into a new FOA.

A native of Toledo, Ohio, Bernheisel got his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering at Ohio State University and Commission through AFROTC. He entered active duty with the Air Force in 1975 and spent six years overseas flying in fighter aircraft. In 1983, almost immediately after finishing his active duty, he got a job with the Sacramento Aircraft Depot at McClellan Air Force Base. "My experience with airplanes and engineering was a good fit. Eventually, I got to work as an Environmental Project Manager, developing new aircraft repair processes by working with cleaner technologies to do the dirty work of the past."

One example was working to find and develop new technologies for stripping paint off airplanes without using harsh chemicals that cause environmental damage. Bernheisel's team developed the technical process and procured the necessary equipment and facilities to replace paint stripping of aircraft and components with plastic medium blasting at McClellan, in which buttons -- ground up to the size of sand -- are used to blast paint off aluminum planes.

During this time, he completed a post graduate degree in Aeronautical Sciences. He worked at McClellan for 10 years before leaving the depot world and moving into a new AFCEE job in environmental remediation at the former Mather Air Force Base. "It took a bit of courage to jump ship before McClellan closed," he recalled. Mather AFB across town had just closed, and Bernheisel went there to work for the Air Force Base Disposal Agency, which would later become the Air Force Base Conversion Agency, then AFRPA.

Bernheisel credits colleague Bill Hughes (BAH) with teaching him about CERCLA, which he describes as "a very complex law that dictates everything we do out here." Six years later, he transitioned back to McClellan again, doing field engineer/project management work out with AFRPA's and McClellan EM (Environmental Management) directorate. "My job entails providing Contract Officer Representative quality assurance oversight and giving technical direction, when necessary, to contractors working in the field."

His work isn't strictly focused on the environmental cleanups at Mather and McClellan. He also provided field support to AFRPA for the management of the former Castle AFB in Atwater, CA, and recently took on field management of Onizuka AFS in Sunnyvale, CA. Farther afield, he travels to the former Galena Forward Operating Station and Kulis Air National Guard Base, both in Alaska, to provide field management of contracted work at those remote locations.

And it's not only work travel that takes him into the skies. He's remained an aviator since his days in the Air Force.

What is his philosophy about work? "Enjoy your life. Enjoy your job. If you don't enjoy your job, it really IS work. I've been blessed to have jobs I really like," he said, noting that his current job is "not an 8 to 5 job," as it entails receiving a certain number of evening, holiday and weekend phone calls. "As long as there's work going on, I'm the go-to for field technical direction."

His advice for young engineers just starting out is, "Don't be a wallflower. Volunteer to help your peers understand their jobs. Eventually, you can learn enough to transition into a lead person." Another caution: "Don't wait for someone to hand you a project. It'll never come. You have to be self-motivated to help your peers - get involved."