When Airman 1st Class Ashton Youngblood was 17 years old, he spent an entire year rebuilding a Ford F-150 truck from the ground up. He didn’t know it at the time, but it was just a minor tune-up for what his career had in store.
A couple years later, he traded in his backyard garage in Missouri for a garage in northern Japan that stores a little more horsepower.
When he walks into work these days, he’s surrounded by huddles of hulking F-16 Fighting Falcon engines. Today, there are numerous engines in the hangar with a combined one million horsepower.
They’re the heart and soul of the F-16s stationed at Misawa Air Base, Japan, and it’s up to Youngblood and his fellow aerospace propulsion maintainers to bring them to life.
“These engines are what the jets are built around,” Youngblood said. “The work we do back here is what really sends them off the runway.”
Aerospace propulsion is commonly referred to as “props,” and every day around 80 props Airmen ripple into their hangar, ready to repair engines and set the frame for mission-ready fighter jets. They use hundreds of tools, utilizing things like bore scope cameras to see hard-to-reach places inside the engine, dry ice to condense specific parts and basic wrenches for bolt turning.
Youngblood works in the jet engine intermediate maintenance section in the props back shop, where the vast majority of props Airmen work. It’s one of three major areas that fall under aerospace propulsion, and they work hand-in-hand with flightline engine troops and engine test cell maintainers.
“Following each flying day at Misawa, the flightline props shop Airmen run extensive tests on each F-16 engine using computer programs to analyze and monitor different parameters to ensure they’re functioning properly,” said Staff Sgt. Jeremy Howard, a maintainer with the 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.
With Misawa AB pilots flying more than 6,000 sorties annually, the cohesion of back shop and flightline maintainers must remain solid and fluent.
It’s a story of two different worlds working together. While Howard and about 10 other flightline props troops battle the elements and fast pace schedules, the back shop digs into depths of the engines seen by no other maintainers.
“It’s a higher tempo out here (on the flightline),” said Tech. Sgt. Keith Wright. “We have to constantly push sorties so the pace is a little faster. We all work well together and everyone plays their part.”
Following testing and downloads on the flightline, Howard said they review the information and either perform maintenance on the fly or turn to their counterparts for more advanced and hard-to-reach help.
“Basically, anytime the flightline has more maintenance than quick fixes on the engines or identifies upcoming long-term maintenance, they’ll send it to us at the back shop,” said Airman 1st Class Hannah Stout, who has spent the past year fixing engines at Misawa AB.
Once at the back shop, the elaborate hands-on dissection begins.
“What we’ll do is receive an engine, tear it down, inspect any parts, and replace them,” Youngblood said pragmatically.
It’s hardly that simple — unmasking a 5,530-pound engine is no easy task, but it’s one props troops take on wholeheartedly.
“It’s a big deal — the F-16 is a single-engine jet, so everything we do must be exact,” said Staff Sgt. Rubiani Navarrette. “It’s very complex at first and a lot to take in, but after a while you get used to it and take pride in going in there and doing your job with no problems.”
Back shop maintainers practically swarm an engine to break it down — some on wheeled seats deconstructing the underside, some scaling the engine’s sides and top, and others reviewing technical orders and supervising the process. They’re patient and methodical, calling others in for opinions and assistance to ensure perfection.
“The most challenging part is what you face mentally,” Youngblood said. “You’re always learning something new and relying on co-workers to get the job done.”
Disassembling an engine usually takes around a week, and putting one back together takes about double that. Along with faults and fixes, scheduled maintenance as part of a service life extension program requires that each engine be inspected thoroughly and necessary parts be replaced after a certain amount of flying hours.
On top of supporting Misawa AB’s mission of the suppression of enemy air defenses, the props back shop is a designated central repair facility, meaning it also takes on the bulk of engine responsibilities for both Osan and Kunsan Air Bases, South Korea.
“We support the entire Pacific theater,” Youngblood said. “It means a lot to know we’re part of the bigger picture. We have a hand in every jet that flies out here.”
When all their hard work comes to a head, the final piece of the trio — the engine test cell maintainers — bring the engine to life.
About once every week, an F-16 engine is loaded into the test cell’s “Hush House,” a warehouse-like structure designed to muffle the roaring sound of jet engines. It’s the final test after hours, days and months of laboring work.
“It’s our goal to catch any last issues and have each engine ready to go before it reaches the flightline,” said Staff Sgt. Joseph Martinez. “It’s imperative to have our end squared away so maintainers aren’t spending any more time troubleshooting and making repairs.”
A 15-foot flame on full afterburner and an engine thrust up to 30,000 pounds signifies a job well done and another engine ready to support the mission of Misawa AB.
“That one pilot is putting his or her life on the line to keep the rest of us alive,” said Staff Sgt. Mitchell Morelos, a 35 MXS test cell maintainer. “It means everything to us to know that props is the reason those jets are in the air.”
It’s a demanding job, complete with incomparable satisfaction. While some just see it as another day at work, Youngblood said his life around engines takes on another meaning.
“I see these engines go into jets and watch them take off,” he said. “We take a lot of pride in knowing we played a part in protecting our people on the ground.”