When is somebody too old to keep working? How many seasoned citizens are expected or forced to retire before they're ready?

At Joint Base Charleston, Bobby Pierce, 79, has been reporting to work in his shop for more than 30 years. He sets the alarm for 4:30 a.m., and consistently wakes up before it rings. Day after day, he's at his building by 5:30 a.m., even though his shift doesn't begin for another hour. He starts the coffee and gets ready for another day, just as he has without fail since 1983.

Pierce is one of 10 civilian employees, and the supervisor, of the 437th Aircrew Flight Equipment Fabrication Shop. Sticking with the job seems to be part of the fabric of the staff. There's more than 300 years of experience in this single shop.

Around the building, he's known as Mr. P.

Pierce still enjoys coming to work. He doesn't fish or hunt anymore. Working is his hobby. If asked how much longer he'll go, he simply says he's happy where he is and there is no target date.

But what exactly does he and the others in this shop do? In short, they make stuff that is used inside the giant C-17s that fly overhead everyday here in the Lowcountry.

Just sew you know

Pierce is most at peace when sitting in front of his sewing machine. Every piece of fabric inside the C-17 has been touched by somebody in his shop.

The seats, straps, nettings and curtains are all made in this building. Even the survival equipment such as parachutes and life rafts are fabricated here. It's the only Air Force Base that does it. Everywhere else, the work is contracted out.

Pierce takes special pride in the custom-made sheepskin seat covers that are made for the cockpit. He calls them "butt covers." The plush, soft, specially designed coverings help cushion those long overseas flights.

There also are hand-sewn curtains made from heavy, fire-retardant material in that ever-popular color of Air Force blue.

In addition, these civil servants might repair a strap on a helmet or reinforce a harness or patch a backpack.

There are more than 50 C-17 Globemaster IIIs stationed at Joint Base Charleston. They majestically float through the skies during their training missions. It's what these planes do in terms of filling military and humanitarian needs around the world, though, that make these aircraft special.

When a pilot takes the time to thank Pierce for the extra attention paid to the interior of this multimillion-dollar flying marvel, it makes Mr. P want to keep coming to work early.

This shop often personalizes some of the work by stitching "Joint Base Charleston" or "437th, Chas., SC" on their handiwork, just so the flight crew carries something with them from home.

Air Force workhorse

The first C-17 came to Charleston in 1993. They can carry tanks, armored vehicles and trucks in their vast cargo holds. The plane also can drop 102 paratroopers into a war zone. Even as big as it is, it's engineered to land on short, narrow runways.

All of the sophisticated technology allows this great bird to be the workhorse of the Air Force.

On the ground, however, in a nondescript gray building in the middle of the base, men and women sit at their sewing machines making sure every piece of fabric on that plane is as strong and secure and safe as absolutely possible.

Pierce is in charge of that show and though he'll be 80 in July, he still enjoys threading the needle and hearing that whir every time the machine starts to run.

He retired from the Air Force after 20 years. He's now got more than 30 years on the books as a civil servant.

He designates Saturdays for yard work and Sundays for church. He also sets aside some time for his girlfriend.

"Girlfriend?" I ask with eyebrows raised. He replies, "I'm old, I ain't dead!"

Reach Warren Peper at 937-5577 or wpeper@postandcourier.com