By the end of 2015, after decades of unpredictable budgets, a period of sequestration, forced personnel reductions and a relentless operations tempo, the Air Force was facing a huge hurdle to achieving its operational readiness goals – a shortage of roughly 4,000 aircraft maintainers across the service.

Maintenance is the backbone of the world's most powerful Air Force. In recent years the maintenance career field has been battling manning challenges. With the help of Airmen like Staff Sgt. Jonathan Dantuma of Travis Air Force Base, California, the solutions will come from the Airmen on the flightline.

In response, the Air Force began to move its most experienced maintainers to air combat units with the highest operations tempo and emphasize the recruitment of new maintainers and cross-training personnel from other Air Force Specialty Codes, or AFSC, to fill the void.

By the beginning of 2019, Air Force leadership had cleared that hurdle.

Tech. Sgt. Dylan Drake (middle), 372nd Training Squadron Field Training Detachment 5 crew chief instructor, speaks to his students during a crew chief course at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, June 4, 2019. The only two FTDs to train B-52H Stratofortress maintainers are located at Barksdale and Minot Air Force Base, S.D. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Tessa B. Corrick)

“We were 4,000 maintainers short,” said former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, during a Center for Strategic and International Studies event in Washington, D.C. “As of December, we are fully manned in maintenance for our active duty units. So, we have closed that gap,”

Then she acknowledged that it was only the first hurdle in the race to readiness in the aircraft maintenance career field.

Airman Toritseju Popo, 2nd Maintenance Squadron phase inspection crew chief, looks over a recently washed B-52 Stratofortress at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., Feb. 9, 2018. The aircraft was looked over multiple times before it was sent to the next stage of the phase inspection process. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Tessa B. Corrick)

It was not just overall numbers of maintainers that had suffered during those trying years. Many of those that separated were the most experienced Airmen, NCOs and Senior NCOs from the largest career field in the service.

Those experienced maintainers were not only needed to meet mission needs but also train the oncoming flood of new maintainers fresh out of technical school.

A crew chief deployed from the 2nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, 20th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, Barksdale Air Force Base, La., starts his work on a B-52 Stratofortress that landed minutes before at RAF Fairford, England, March 28, 2019. The 20th AMU is attached to the 20th Bomb Squadron’s B-52s, and the unit maintains those B-52s anywhere they deploy. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Philip Bryant)

“And now we have to season those people and make them exceptional Airmen on the flightline,” Wilson said. “Readiness is first and foremost about training people.”

Remedies administered from The Pentagon, such as reenlistment bonuses and high-year tenure extensions across the various maintainer AFSCs, have helped with retaining talent and improving experience on the flightlines and in the backshops.  

Those experienced maintainers that have chosen to stay accepted the challenge of supervising and training more three-level maintainers than ever.

To do so, Airmen at aircraft maintenance squadrons around the service began innovating with new scheduling, accelerated hands-on training courses and virtual reality simulators to get new maintainers proficient quickly; keeping more aircraft ready to fly and improving operational readiness.

Staff Sgt. Jonathan Dantuma and Airman 1st Class Raeqwon Brown, aircraft electrical and environmental maintainers with the 60th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, work on the flightline at Travis Air Force Base, California, servicing C-5M Super Galaxy aircraft, Mar. 22, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)