Story by Katrice Williams | Photos by Shelia Scott
Morris “Mo” Southern, an Eastman, Georgia native, is currently an operations manager at Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation. Morris has lived in Effingham since 2017, as he long had his sights set on the area after being privileged to travel all around the world for most of his life. Actually, Morris retired from the US Air Force (USAF) as a highly decorated Senior Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO), along with being a Production Superintendent and Line Chief of the Thunderbirds, the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron, an elite honor encompassing true renown. What’s more, of the various options Morris was afforded upon graduating high school, including an opportunity to play college sports, Morris’ heart was steadfastly set on military enlistment; he also knew, hands-down, that the USAF was the branch for him. “I wanted to make my way as a man and make my parents proud; I loved the level of discipline and attention to detail that was characteristic of the US Air Force. I also wanted to be able to see what was in this beautiful planet that God created for us,” Morris stated. After enlisting, Morris’ orders landed him in San Antonio, Texas at Lackland Air Force Base (AFB) for USAF Basic Training. Following basic training, Morris aspired to begin a career as a tactical aircraft maintenance specialist, though he knew he had never before even “touched an airplane.” Morris was later assigned to Clark AFB in the Philippines after completing Tactical Air School for fighter jet maintenance; the young man attained invaluable experience and training during his tenure there. Afterwards, his assignment took him to Lackland AFB in Texas, where he completed the remainder of his first military term. Hence, Morris re-enlisted as he eagerly sought an international assignment–“Europe or anywhere [abroad].” To his delight, he was assigned to Ramstein AB in Germany where he spent four years and “loved it” before returning to the states. Later, Morris was briefly assigned to MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida, which was another “dream assignment” before he was off to Pope AFB Airfield in Fayetteville, North Carolina with the 82nd Air Battalion. Over the following years, Morris had postings in various places, including: Kunsan AB in South Korea, along with Shaw AFB in Sumter, South Carolina as well as “tours to Turkey and Saudi Arabia,” along with time in Spain, Japan, Guam, Alaska and Hawaii. One of Morris’ greatest accomplishments, however, was still ahead of him. With an array of noteworthy experience as an “aircraft maintenance specialist on fighter jets,” Morris sought to achieve one of his biggest goals and dreams thus far: to become a USAF Thunderbird. “Created in 1953, the Thunderbirds, ‘a formal flying aerobatic team,’ are assigned to the 57th Wing and are based at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.” The reputation of the Thunderbirds is held in the highest esteem in the USAF, as the application and selection processes entail utter rigor and a high degree of selectivity. “The Thunderbirds are hard-working airmen who voluntarily serve America and defend freedom; they recruit and build confidence in the military. If you are in the Air Force, there is no higher posting,” Morris stated. In addition, Morris is proud that one of the squadron’s most notable attributes is to “spread goodwill through their pride, dedication and professionalism.” Due to a phenomenal military record, including various awards and accommodations, Morris was also “written a letter of recommendation by a colonel at Shaw AFB” who was a Thunderbird himself. Throughout the process, Morris’ phenomenal work ethic was obvious as he combated the challenges of it all, including long hours every day of the week for a few weeks. A short time following the extensively detailed selection process, Morris received the information that he had been yearning to hear…he had been accepted. “It was a grueling process. By this time, I was a Senior NCO. I became caught up in the culture and the team and was awarded my patch in the patching ceremony,” Morris mentioned. The Thunderbird Patch itself is held in the utmost regard; in fact, there is a plethora of “history and tradition” behind it and the entire Thunderbird Squadron. By his third year with the Thunderbirds (2003), Morris accomplished one of his biggest feats yet by attaining the role of Product Superintendent and Line Chief. He took enormous pride in his position and how crucial it was to the entire squadron, consistently striving to embody and exemplify the principles that had long been characteristic of the unit. Interestingly enough, among a variety of other responsibilities, Morris was “responsible for the final walk-around for each aircraft before a show”; he was keenly aware of how each pilot “preferred their instruments set in the cockpit” prior to shows.
“That year, we never once left an aircraft behind due to maintenance…never cancelled a show due to maintenance.” he said. In lieu of Morris’ perseverance and valiant efforts, he was asked to continue with the Thunderbirds for a fourth year; the tenure normally does not exceed three years, which revealed the real value that
Morris added to the entire team. His time working with the Thunderbirds was truly the “pinnacle” of his military career. “I spent 22 ½ years in the Air Force; I always recommend the Air Force to anyone thinking about military service. Serving in the Thunderbirds was the highlight of my USAF career. It is an intense experience, as you are representing our Air Force and our country all the time,” he stated. Morris recalls several of his most memorable moments. He was honored to be selected as “NCO of the Year for his unit at Ramstein AFB in West Germany and as Senior NCO Maintenance Professional of the Year for two consecutive years” while with the Thunderbirds. Additionally, Morris felt very honored to have the opportunity to meet former US President George H.W. Bush on two separate occasions. He also pridefully remembers a time in 2002 that “he led the night shift maintenance team. It was the first time in many years that the team left no aircraft at a show site until they were all repaired”; all planes went home on schedule. Moreover, he mentions a thrilling “flight in the backseat of an F-16 Fighting Falcon, ‘a supersonic, multirole fighter aircraft’ flown by a Thunderbird Pilot.” However, two of his most meaningful memories involve a time when the Thunderbirds had a particular show at Warner Robbins AFB–“his brothers were able to see him perform.” Also, Morris’ family “attended his retirement ceremony on March 10, 2006, at Langley AFB,” which proved to be the experience of a lifetime. At that time, he remembered his father’s last words to him before he left home for basic training. “Son, go become a man. You can always come home.” Reflecting back on all his successful years of service, Morris knew he had done just that. Since his Air Force service days, Morris has obtained priceless professional experience, namely via Boeing Corporation and Honda Jet, prior to beginning his present career at Gulfstream Aerospace. Morris’ fascinating service record certainly contributed to each opportunity. He, too, feels that Gulfstream is unequivocally one of the best aviation companies to be a part of. “Gulfstream is the best aviation experience possible. They also take pride in hiring former military,” he remarked. Morris appreciates all the love and support given to him by his family, especially his wife Jan, who he enjoys spending his spare time with. Further, he sincerely treasures the moments that he is able to spend with his three children–son Morris Jr. and two daughters, Maeracle and Bella. Though they live out-of-state, he “loves all of the time he has with them during visits.” Morris and Jan are very “proud to call Effingham home.” Being from a small town and coming from a large, close-knit family has allowed Morris to appreciate the little things in life, as they can truly mean so much. Over the years, Morris has come to love the “laid-back, serene” lifestyle that the Effingham community offers. Living in Effingham is reminiscent of his life growing up back in Eastman. “I am a homebody. I like being on the back porch with my cigar watching the birds in the lagoon; I love to sit with my wife Jan, and watch the hummingbirds,” he said. Morris is looking forward to bright days ahead. He is ever so thankful for all of the many opportunities that he has been blessed with over the years.