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'Train'ing for the Mission

Susan Mertes, 9th Support Division locomotive engineer, operates a locomotive at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., March 21, 2012. Mertes operates one of the few locomotives in the Air Force inventory to deliver U-2 jet fuel to the base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Andrew Buchanan/Released)

Susan Mertes, 9th Support Division locomotive engineer, operates a locomotive at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., March 21, 2012. Mertes operates one of the few locomotives in the Air Force inventory to deliver U-2 jet fuel to the base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Andrew Buchanan/Released)

Susan Mertes, 9th Support Division locomotive engineer, operates a locomotive at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., March 21, 2012. Mertes has worked in many positions on base since 1979. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Andrew Buchanan/Released)

Susan Mertes, 9th Support Division locomotive engineer, operates a locomotive at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., March 21, 2012. Mertes has worked in many positions on base since 1979. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Andrew Buchanan/Released)

Susan Mertes, 9th Support Division locomotive engineer, looks to ensure the rails are clear at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., March 21, 2012. As a locomotive engineer, Mertes hauls JPTS fuel for the U-2. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Andrew Buchanan/Released)

Susan Mertes, 9th Support Division locomotive engineer, looks to ensure the rails are clear at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., March 21, 2012. As a locomotive engineer, Mertes hauls JPTS fuel for the U-2. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Andrew Buchanan/Released)

BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif., -- As Susan Mertes pulls a rusty lever an 80 ton engine starts and the ground begins to shake. The iron tracks give out a deep hum from the vibrations of the train and a plume of thick black smoke billows into the sky.

Mertes, or Sam as everyone calls her, has been operating this enormous government vehicle for more than 20 years as a locomotive engineer at the 9th Support Division.

During her time at Beale, she's seen the SR-71 Blackbird come and go, the U-2 Dragon Lady evolve its mission, and over the past two decades she's hauled millions of gallons of fuel to keep these aircraft flying.

"I really wanted to be a veterinarian growing up, but It never entered my mind that I'd be a locomotive engineer" said Sam. "But I don't think I'd be happy doing anything else. I love what I do."

Sam was born on Beale where her father served in the Army Air Corps and later in the then newly-created U.S. Air Force. Before becoming Beale's locomotive engineer, Sam worked at civil engineering, supply and among other positions, as a tractor trailer driver.

"Sam is extremely passionate about what she does," said Debbie Ballentine, 9th SD material division flight chief. "She has a tenacious attitude and performs her job in an outstanding manner."

While working as a tractor trailer driver for Beale, Sam was offered a job as a locomotive engineer.

"When they asked me to become a locomotive engineer, I told them I didn't know about any of that stuff," said Sam. "But they told me I could learn. I was the first certified locomotive engineer at Beale."

Sam said this job has suited her well over the years.

"I really need noise to concentrate," she said as she sounded the 80-ton locomotive's whistle.

"Whenever I leave Beale, I'm pretty sure my life will go on as it is right now...I just won't be coming here," she said. "I'm easily fascinated with everything wherever I go. I'll never stop learning."