Just a few short miles north of the Las Vegas strip lies one of the busiest flightlines in the Air Force.
On one runway, Norwegian F-16 Fighting Falcon crews ready their fighters for take-off. On a different runway, a B-1B Lancer crew from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, flashes the thumbs up for take-off while a B-52H Stratofortress crew from Minot AFB, North Dakota, patiently waits its turn.
These and a host of other fighter, bomber and command and control aircraft make up Red Flag 15-2, an advanced aerial training exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, that provides valuable experience to units throughout the Air Force and NATO.
In a small corner of the base, a group of maintainers gets ready to scramble as their KC-135 Stratotanker approaches the runway. In quick succession, the nose tires are chalked, the diesel generator connected, the main gear dropped and the inspections initiated – with each Airman thoroughly walking the length of the metal frame to scan for loose or broken hardware, as well as any new damage to the jet.
This group of maintainers from the 22nd Air Refueling Wing and the Air Force Reserve’s 931st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, support refueling efforts for the entire exercise, and, according to the maintenance Airmen who keep the KC-135s flying, it’s one of the most fast-paced jobs on one of the most fast-paced bases in the Air Force.
Tech. Sgt. Nathaniel Ruggles is an aerospace propulsions technician from the 931st AMXS whose colleagues say epitomizes the type of Airman who can not only manage the hectic pace of Red Flag, but also can maneuver among the often stressful blending of different career fields and types of total force units from different bases that are thrown together in this type of training environment.
“He’s a well-rounded mechanic, meaning not only does he know his job, but he also knows lots of the jobs of those that he works with,” said Senior Master Sgt. Seth Thomas, the 931st AMXS superintendent. “For instance, he’s a jet engine mechanic, but most of the work that he’s doing here is crew chief work. He’s doing inspections and refuels, and he’s even helped out with the tire changes that we’ve done here.”
A subject matter expert in his own career field, Ruggles has studied other areas of maintenance; his thirst to learn is driven by the excitement he gets from fixing something with his own two hands.
“The last time I was (at Red Flag), I was one of the guys driving the fuel trucks,” he recalled of 2001, when he was an active-duty petroleum, oil and lubricant Airman. “To come here as a maintainer, it’s kind of an accomplishment on my part, that after 14 years, I’m still here. I’m still doing my job. It’s exciting to me.”
From a young age, Ruggles was already well on his way to becoming a master maintainer, thanks to some smart parenting. His father believed that Nathaniel and his two brothers needed to work hard for what they wanted. If something broke, like a bike tire, his father would teach them only once how to perform the repair. From then on out, if it broke again, it was the boys’ responsibility to put it back together.
“We’ve all been hands-on since we were little kids,” he said. “If we couldn’t break it and fix it then it was boring, basically.
“I like to get to understand how something works, and to work on an aircraft, it’s like every day is exciting … every day is something different.”
It was this wide-eyed, child-like enthusiasm that Staff Sgt. Anthony Calderone, a 22nd AMXS crew chief, first saw when he found himself working beside Ruggles for the first time. Both are from McConnell AFB, but the two have generally been on opposite shifts, until now.
“It’s been a good experience working with Sergeant Ruggles,” Calderone said. “He’s got a lot of passion for this job. He loves doing it, and I don’t think he would want to do anything else with his life. He keeps our energy up – his being in good spirits keeps everyone else in good spirits, and everyone just works better when they are happier, so having him around really helps.”
Grouped in the office as they wait for a jet to land, the Airmen keep it light, cracking jokes and playing cards. For now, the pack is boisterous and carefree, but when it comes time to work, they snap to it. Even with grins lining their faces, in the back of their minds’ they know they have a big job to do. They understand the importance of doing things right the first time – that they hold lives in their hands every time they go out to fix a plane.
“I don’t ever want to be on a jet and know that I did something to it because I wanted to go home,” Ruggles said. “As a civilian reservist, I like to make sure that if I’ve got to stay a couple of hours later, I’ll make sure (the job) is done right. That’s just my mentality.”
On May 3, 2013, a KC-135 from McConnell AFB went down in the Kyrgyz Republic, and for Ruggles and his co-workers, it was a distressing reminder of the heavy responsibility resting on their shoulders.
“I worked on all the jets,” he said. “So the first thing that came to mind was, ‘Oh my God, did I do anything to make that happen?’ That’s the first thing that goes through all of our minds. There’s so much stuff that it takes to get that jet off the ground. It makes your heart race.”
Because the cause of the accident was unknown at the time, many of the jet’s maintainers began to mentally reassess all of the work they’d done on the aircraft beforehand. It was a frightening position to be in – left wondering.
“If we fix it right before it goes up and then it comes down, then that’s the last little bit of maintenance that happens,” Ruggles said. “My brother was over there when it happened, and he said there was a friend of his that didn’t say anything, he just sat there, just stared at the wall.
“It’s like post-traumatic stress – your heart races, your pulse quickens,” he said. “You doubt yourself, and the first moment you doubt yourself when working on an airplane, then that can impact everything you do from then on out.”
But as tragic as the crash was for the Airmen and unit involved, it was a wake-up call for maintainers to trust their abilities and instincts when making sure a jet is ready to fly.
“It is a group effort trying to come back from something like that,” Calderone said. “You have to be able to trust the people that you’re working with (and) believe that they know what they are looking for, that they are comfortable saying, ‘this is wrong – this jet can’t fly.’”
Though the Airmen perform different duties, from hydraulics to metals technology, they maintain a singular focus of keeping the 60-year-old jet on the mission. The 931st AMXS works 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including holidays, to make sure this is accomplished. The time they spend together is an example of how individuals can bond to become a cohesive unit, especially during stressful times like Red Flag or actual deployments.
“In our career field, camaraderie is a huge deal,” Ruggles explained. “You’ve got to be able to get along with the people you work with … because if you can’t trust the person you work next to, then it’s not going to work. The maintenance isn’t going to get done fluidly. It’s not going to get done quickly. It’s not going to get done safely, and that jet’s not going to get off the ground. So it’s very important that we communicate with each other.”
Red Flag is fighter going against fighter, it means bombers hitting their targets, and it’s about command and control aircraft owning the skies. For Ruggles and his small band of refueling maintainers, it’s all about making it happen safely.