While most Airmen sat down for dinner with their families last night, Staff Sgt. Joshua Parrish worked on the fourth A-10 Thunderbolt II of his shift on the flightline at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
Elsewhere on base, Staff Sgt. Nathan Claridge and Senior Airman Lucas Tripp began patrolling the Yuma area for the 355th Security Forces Squadron. Meanwhile, at the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, 1st Lt. Crystal Barron watched over babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.
These are just a few of the many Airmen on duty through the night year-round. They patrol base streets, care for the sick and injured, maintain and fly airplanes and work extended hours in deployed locations around the world. Because of their nighttime responsibilities, these Airmen often miss their children’s school events, time with their spouses, eating dinner with their families and other family activities.
“The military never sleeps,” said Master Sgt. Brent Brady, a 55th Maintenance Squadron production superintendent who works the swing shift at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. “So many people outside the military, and some even in the military, don’t realize it.
“We’re fixing aircraft, changing engines and tires and tons of other maintenance on these planes to keep them ready for their sorties. People on night shifts in the Air Force are constantly working hard. About the only thing we’ll ever see when we leave, while people are sleeping safely in their own beds, are the security forces and gate guards. Other than that, the base is quiet.”
The Davis-Monthan flightline can be lively where Arizona Air National Guard Maj. Windy Hendrick works a 24-hour shift as an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot on alert several times a month.
“This base is not quiet at night at all,” said Hendrick, an F-16 instructor pilot with the 162nd Fighter Wing at the Tucson International Airport. “The A-10s have a heavy night schedule, so they’re flying often at night. There are HC-130 [Kings] and rescue squadrons based here, not to mention the [Drug Enforcement Administration], and the Border Patrol has helicopters out of Davis-Monthan. The 563rd Rescue Group’s HH-60 [Pave Hawk] Reserve unit is also here, so it’s really busy.
“You’ll have moments of nice, peaceful quiet, interrupted by a complete adrenaline rush.”
The interruption for F-16 pilots at the Davis-Monthan alert facility hits whenever they hear the sound of the klaxon accompanied by a series of flashing lights. When she hears the loud warning horn, Hendrick doesn’t know if it’s for a practice, as it was earlier in the day, or for a real-world emergency until she’s sitting in her jet waiting for the scramble order.
“You can’t go outside the confines of the facility because you have a requirement to take off within a certain amount of time,” Hendrick said. “But it’s just that sort of detachment that is a constant reminder that any second the klaxon could go off, and you could be airborne. As comfortable as it is for us to spend our time here, the facility itself is a reminder of how important it is and the threats that are out there.”
It can get even louder elsewhere on base, at the 358th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, where Parrish is in the middle of his 3 to 11 p.m. shift. The swing shift is normally when the bulk of the unit’s maintenance is done. Every time a jet lands, it undergoes an intake and exhaust inspection, Parrish said.
“It’s loud because you’ve got the engines running,” said Parrish, a dedicated crew chief. “Once it gets quieter out here, that means it’s time for us to go home.”
The maintainers know to be vigilant when working at night. The wind usually gets stronger at night in the Tucson area, so maintainers will see a lot of what they call “Tucson tumbleweeds” – trash bags blowing across the flightline. Anyone working outside at night also has to be conscious of Arizona’s wildlife. They sometimes see scorpions, tarantulas and even black widow and brown recluse spiders. Lighting is also a concern, especially when working inside an A-10 engine.
One difference Airmen in all career fields have in common when working at night is they’re often trusted to make decisions because there isn’t as much supervision as there is during the day.
“On swing shift, they kind of trust you to do your job the right way without having to look over your shoulder,” Parrish said.
While many families watched “Dancing With the Stars,” the NICU was the complete opposite from Parrish’s work environment. The unit, which was at Wilford Hall Medical Center before its recent move to BAMC, was nearly silent as the nurses watched over the babies and the occasional parent sat with his or her child. The average weight for the babies in NICU was 3 pounds, but they had been as small as 15 ounces, Barron said.
“The best way I can explain the day vs. night comparison is it’s a little quieter, which is better for the babies,” she said. “They can get the nocturnal sleep pattern going on when it’s quieter at night and not as busy as it is during the day.”
The NICU nurses face one disadvantage when they rotate to the night shift. The doctors usually make their rounds during the day, so the day shift nurses have opportunities to give their input on the plan for the babies’ care. Nurses on the night shift don’t often have the same chance.
“A big issue is not feeling like I am part of the plan of care for the babies,” she said. “The doctors round in the morning and determine the plan. Most times, [they ask] for nurses’ input. So I don’t get this opportunity at night; doctors during the night don’t want to make changes.”
One of the biggest adjustments Barron has to make when she works through the night is with her own children. She juggles appointments, flight and squadron meetings, her children’s activities and her own sleep during the day after working the previous night.
“It’s like you’re always sleeping to them, even though we’re only working three days one week and four the next,” Barron said about the Panama schedule the hospital uses. “They don’t really get the concept of you’re up all night, so you have to sleep during the day.”
About the time most parents put their children in bed, Hendrick was spending some of her time in the alert facility’s small gymnasium, with its basketball and volleyball courts and full-strength training and aerobics area. She’s a major proponent of the Total Force Fitness for the 21st Century initiative created by Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“They’re now really starting to understand that our health and wellness is influenced by many different aspects,” Hendrick said. “Obviously, we cannot control some of them. We can’t control the fact that we may have to scramble and launch within minutes from a complete sleep.
“There are things we can control. For instance, not only does exercise and eating right help you stay physically ready, but I also use mindfulness for helping to reduce stress and focus my attention. What I find is I’m essentially more alert in my sleep. So even though it’s a sound sleep and very restful, I’m able to come out of that sleep a lot quicker, and I’m more ready to take off in the minutes we have available to do that and perform my mission to the best of my ability.”
Last night, as most Airmen slept, Parrish was approaching the end of his swing shift with the 358th AMU, and Claridge and Tripp continued their patrol of the Davis-Monthan streets.
If they get sleepy, the security forces members roll down the windows of their patrol car or drink coffee. Often, it hits them about midnight of their 12-hour shift.
“Night shift is all I’ve ever worked stateside,” Tripp said. “I like it because it’s quieter, and if you do get called to something, it’s actually something you should’ve gotten called for.
“It’s always different. Weekends are obviously busier in housing because people are out barbecuing and drinking. But throughout the rest of the base, there’s really not all that much happening because all of the squadrons and buildings are closed for the most part.”
About 3 a.m., Parrish walks his wife to her car as she leaves for her job, even though he left work about 11 p.m. the night before.
“I’m up at 3 in the morning anyway,” he said. “My wife works from 4 a.m. to noon, so I get to see her about an hour to an hour and a half, then I’m at work. If I was on day shift, I’d be getting home about 3, and we’d be spending the afternoon and night together.”
When morning comes, Airmen on the night shift get their much-needed rest, which they often juggle with mandatory appointments, physical training and family commitments. They do their best to re-charge in time to be ready for their next night on their schedule.
Airmen on nighttime duty miss this time with their families, but know their sacrifices help keep operations on base running safely and smoothly. They leave it in the hands of the day shift and return home to rest so they will be ready for the next night.