Maintainers Challenge

Keeping systems working as advertised

Photos and story by Val Gempis

Airman 1st Class Shakera Whatley, a weapons loader, gets a rare chance to work on live MK-82 bombs during Green Flag-West.

Airman 1st Class Shakera Whatley, a weapons loader, gets a rare chance to work on live MK-82 bombs during Green Flag-West. Whatley normally works on training bombs at her home station.

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It’s tough to imagine all the work it takes the Air Force to fly a single sortie. It’s even tougher to fathom what it took to fly more than 800,000 sorties in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 – a number that’s the equivalent of flying 400 sorties a day.

Chief Master Sgt. John Harris doesn’t have much time to think about these numbers, though. As the component maintenance chief for the 187th Fighter Wing of the Alabama Air National Guard, he has other things to think about – like keeping the wing’s aging fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons in the air and contributing to the Air Force mission of flying, fighting and winning.

To do that, the chief focuses on maintaining a fleet he says will “get pilots to their mission and back home in one piece.”

This is not a new task. Maintainers have been doing this job since the Air Force became a separate service more than 65 years ago. With thousands of aircraft in the sky daily, they knew, then and now, that precision aircraft maintenance plays a crucial role in protecting the safety of Airmen and the integrity of their missions.

But doing this job today is becoming an ever-increasing challenge.

The Air Force agrees. In its U.S. Air Force Posture Statement 2012, service leaders acknowledge that Air Force readiness relies on a host of components, and mission success depends on maintaining the health of all the key areas that make the Air Force the globe’s premier airpower – all with less money and fewer people. The posture statement also affirms that the “high operations tempo has had some detrimental effects on our overall readiness, particularly in the context of aging weapons systems and stress on our personnel.”

Airman 1st Class John Northcutt, (left), a crew chief, provides a light as Lt. Col. Eric Finch, an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot, signs a maintenance form after returning from a night mission.

Airman 1st Class John Northcutt, (left), a crew chief, provides a light as Lt. Col. Eric Finch, an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot, signs a maintenance form after returning from a night mission. Crew chiefs jobs are not done until their jets are inspected after each sortie.

Harris and his fellow maintainers at Dannelly Field, Ala., know their task—to ensure their part of the Air Force is ready to complete its mission every day—takes time, effort and sacrifice. To play their key role in the success of the Air Force means he and his troops must “provide aircraft that have all their systems working as advertised.”

Advances in aircraft technology are important, Harris said. But, to effectively operate modern systems, the Air Force needs highly qualified, well-trained and motivated people.

“That’s where training and discipline come in,” Harris said. The wing’s goal is to keep Airmen focused on the job at hand and to ensure they do everything by the book.

“Regulations are written in blood because somebody’s been hurt doing the job,” he said.

The wing’s Airmen know they will continue to face challenges – like working with the ever-changing system upgrades that keep their 1970’s era legacy aircraft a viable weapon system. The wing itself has flown and fixed the jets since 1993.

Another challenge is that some maintainers only get limited training time.

“Our training requirements are the same as our active-duty counterparts. But, because of our schedule, most of our Guardsmen’s training time is shorter,” said Master Sgt. David Caton, an F-16 crew chief.

To help cope with the challenges—and deployments—Caton said wing maintainers spend a lot of time scheduling unit training assemblies, or UTAs, at home. They also try to minimize administrative duties for their part-timers.

“We want our Airmen on the flightline with their hands on their jets as much as possible,” Caton said.

Master Sgt. Russell Nero, an avionics technician with the 187th Fighter Wing of the Alabama Air National Guard, works on a radio during the training.

Master Sgt. Russell Nero, an avionics technician with the 187th Fighter Wing of the Alabama Air National Guard, works on a radio during the training. Unit mechanics said they learned a lot of new things during Green Flag-West 13-02.

The Air Force’s high operations tempo cuts into this training time. So, when possible, the wing participates in training exercises around the country and overseas. The wing sent its jets and Airmen to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., in December 2012 to participate in Green Flag-West 13-02. The exercise provides combat training in air-land integration and joint employment of airpower. Airmen trained in the joint and coalition exercise to prepare them to operate in an ever-changing battlefield.

Airman 1st Class Shakera Whatley, a weapons loader, was one of the Alabama Airmen who went to Green Flag. Seeing aircraft return from a mission without the bombs and missiles she helped load on them was a rare sight for her and her fellow Airmen.

“We don’t normally work with live munitions back home,” she said. She loaded live bombs and missiles on F-16s every day of the exercise. “It was a great training opportunity for us. It made me better at what I do. You just have to get in the rhythm of things and learn how to be efficient.”

Training opportunities are a welcome deployment, said Lt. Col. Casey Cooley, the wing’s maintenance chief.

“It’s important for us to participate in events like this,” Cooley said. They simulate deployed operations tempo, which helps wing leaders gauge their maintainers’ readiness to operate as a deployed aircraft maintenance unit. “We have a lot of new people who haven’t deployed.” Plus, he said training deployments allow “our drill-status folks and traditional Guardsmen to take part outside of a UTA environment,” Cooley added.

For two weeks, wing aircraft maintainers — including weapons loaders, crew chiefs, munitions specialists and other mechanics — took part in around-the-clock, real-time, real-world aircraft launch and recovery operations. The test and training range is home to the nation’s most advanced aerial test and training environment and provides participants with a peacetime battlefield to hone their combat skills at a real combat pace.

The Airmen had to adapt to the fast tempo. They worked split shifts and long days to ensure their pilots met take-off times. It was a lot of work, but everyone helped each other to ensure mission success.

Tech. Sgt. Bobby Gonzales, a weapons loader, shows his troops how he marshals an F-16 Falcon during a daytime sortie.

Tech. Sgt. Bobby Gonzales, a weapons loader, shows his troops how he marshals an F-16 Falcon during a daytime sortie.

Other wing members, most who normally don’t work around the jets, helped maintainers on the flightline. For example, a wing budget analyst helped run the maintenance operation center. And unlike back home, where there are clearly defined lines of responsibilities between maintenance troops, those lines blurred at Nellis.

There are no fences at Nellis. “You have to cross lines and pull together. You do what needs to be done,” said Chief Master Sgt. John Tadlock, the wing’s maintenance flight chief.

Tadlock said training exercises like Green Flag are “as close as you can get to a deployment.”  The only difference is that there are no bad guys lobbing mortars at them. And although they don’t have to deal with bad guys, the chief said they take the exercise seriously and practice like it’s real.

The realistic training is nothing new for Tech. Sgt. Bobby Gonzales, also a weapons loader.  During a night mission, he and his team waited on the runway for their jets to arrive for takeoff. When they arrived, the Airmen gave each jet a final end-of-runway check before the fighters took off for their mission.

“You can get complacent walking around dummy bombs and missiles at home,” Gonzales said. “But it’s really an eye opener for our young troops when they’re working around live munitions.”

The beauty of training exercises like Green Flag is that Airmen get to work two solid weeks without having to deal with the distractions they normally face at home, Gonzales said. Each day brings different challenges, learning experiences and, sometimes, disappointment. The maintainers know their jets won’t change during a deployment. But they know the jets’ missions, maintenance issues and the munitions weapons troops hang on them will change.

Tech. Sgt. Bobby Gonzales, a weapons loader, relishes the opportunity to train his troops on handling live MK-82 bombs during the exercise.

Tech. Sgt. Bobby Gonzales, a weapons loader, relishes the opportunity to train his troops on handling live MK-82 bombs during the exercise.

“No one is trying to get out the door to be with his or her family,” Gonzales said. “They have nothing else to do here but work.”

Most of the Airmen welcome the hard work. They also welcome the opportunity to learn new things and get their hands dirty on the flightline. It’s what they will experience when they deploy in support of operations in Afghanistan.

“We’ve learned a lot here,” said Senior Airman Jamichael Rainge, a crew chief on his first exercise. “You really need to be careful walking around planes that have stuff hanging underneath — or you can get hurt.”

The Airmen said he and the other wing maintainers are proficient in launching, recovering, servicing and maintaining their aircraft. But the training exercises exposed them to other duties crew chiefs normally don’t experience at Dannelly Field. Exercises allow maintainers to learn how to deal with, and solve, heavy maintenance challenges — like fixing a broken F-16 gearbox.

Training deployments allow Airmen to learn to deal with major maintenance issues daily, and that they must respond at a quicker pace. But how fast they do their jobs is not the goal of the training.

“It’s easy to lose the perspective of why you’re really doing this,” Chief Master Sgt. Harris added. Training exercises “give you a chance to see close hand, on a day-to-day basis, why you train and how important you are to the mission.”

Harris said how well the wing’s aircraft perform during a deployment depends on how well he and his maintenance team keep them in the weeks and months before they deploy. In this wing, he said, the Airmen who keep the F-16s flying “take pride in doing everything by the book.”

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