Maintaining Excellence

Thunderbirds’ maintainers uphold long-lasting traditions

Story by Tech. Sgt. Chris Powell
Photos by Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez

Maj. Blaine Jones and Thunderbirds maintenance members signal each other while he taxies before a training sortie at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

Maj. Blaine Jones and Thunderbirds maintenance members signal each other while he taxies before a training sortie at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. The gestures are a form of camaraderie shared between the pilots and maintenance personnel. Jones is the Thunderbird 5 pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez)

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There’s a streak the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds’ maintainers hold that extends more than 60 years — since the unit first began flying air shows — they’ve never canceled a performance due to maintenance issues.

“It’s a very significant streak due to the fact that we started the team in 1953,” said Staff Sgt. Will Rotross, the Thunderbird 1 dedicated crew chief. “We hold ourselves to a higher standard, and we take our jobs seriously. We fly aircraft with extreme safety; we put a lot of time and effort, a lot of preventative maintenance actions, and a lot of improvements to the aircraft to be sure we can continue air shows and not cancel due to maintenance issues.”

To keep that streak from ever breaking, the Thunderbirds have instilled a team-first mentality.
“You won’t find the attitude ‘That’s not my job’ here,” said Tech. Sgt. Nate Santiago, the Thunderbird 1 assistant dedicated crew chief. “Everyone’s really out to help one another, everybody is looking for ways to contribute. That’s one thing I’ve found to be 100 percent accurate is that it’s a team. Everyone is looking for ways to contribute, even if it’s just holding a flashlight; they’re trying to find ways to help.”

That attitude is proven by the Thunderbirds’ assistant dedicated crew chiefs, who come from specialties outside aircraft maintenance.

“They’re all aircraft maintainers, but they may come from specialties such as non-destructive inspection or metals technician,” said Senior Master Sgt. Chris Roehm, the Thunderbirds’ maintenance superintendent. “Like Sergeant Santiago, he’s an AGE mechanic, but he’s the assistant dedicated crew chief on the aircraft. It goes back to the teamwork mentality. Everyone gets out there, they get trained and fulfill those positions.”

Thunderbirds maintenance personnel huddle up to perform a chant at the completion of a ground show practice at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

Thunderbirds maintenance personnel huddle up to perform a chant at the completion of a ground show practice at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez)

To prepare assistant crew chiefs for performing mechanical maintenance on an aircraft, the crew chiefs, provide extenisive on-the-job training.

“The standards for aircraft maintenance are the same; the difference is we try to hold ourselves to a higher standard because we know not everyone gets an opportunity to be here (on the Thunderbirds),” Santiago said. “We’re looked at with such higher, more stringent standards that we have to push ourselves to be a little bit better.

“It’s not just fixing something, but it’s fixing something and having your name on the side of it and being proud of what you do for the maintenance that you put out there,” he added.

While ensuring the Thunderbirds F-16 Fighting Falcons are flight worthy on show day, some of the maintainers get to be part of the show when they help launch the aircraft.

“It’s a choreographed launch sequence, however all the launch steps that are taken during the show are in accordance with the AFI for launch, so it’s the same launch you’d see in a (regular line) unit,” Roehm said. “They check all the same requirements to ensure a safe aircraft during launch, it’s just done in coordination with all six of them.”

Although the Thunderbirds maintainers work every day to keep that streak going, Roehm believes it’s due to the quality of Airmen the maintenance team cultivates year in and year out.

“We’ve got a great group who are motivated and who were the star performers where they were at before,” he said. “They all volunteered to be here, they want to be here and they’re excited about their job. The teamwork is great, and the outcome is exceptional.”

Staff Sgt. Michael Craig removes a stuck bolt at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Craig is an aircraft structural maintenance specialist.

Staff Sgt. Michael Craig removes a stuck bolt at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Craig is an aircraft structural maintenance specialist. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez)

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