SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Anyone who serves, or has served, in the United States Air Force will eventually get asked the same question: “What kind of plane do you/did you fly?” It’s a question that evokes myriad reactions from an eye-rolling chuckle to a head-dropping sigh.
It’s an understandable assumption, since the Air Force’s mission is to “Fly, Fight and Win.” However, less than 4 percent of Airmen are pilots. Even if navigators and weapons system officers are added in, the sum is still around 5 percent of the total force. There are a handful of other tactical specialties, such as combat control and cyber warfare, but the majority of Airmen serve in supporting roles for the entire enterprise.
One of the largest support structures here at the 332d Air Expeditionary Wing can be broadly defined as aircraft maintainers. This not only includes those individuals who perform pre-flight, thru-flight (where an aircraft returns from a mission then embarks on another mission within a couple hours) and post-flight safety and function checks, but also several “back shops” which specialize in a certain aspect of the aircraft’s function such as weapons, guidance or propulsion systems. All in all, the ratio of maintainers to aircraft here is over 25-to-1.
“(Maintainers) have more responsibility than the majority of Airmen in the Air Force,” said 1st Lt. Tate Ashton, 391st Fighter Squadron Sortie Generation Flight commander. “Nobody else is held to a higher level of accountability than they are.”
On the flightline, each aircraft has at least one maintenance crew chief and several crew members that rotate in and out to provide service 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The pre-, thru-, and post-flight checks can range in length, and include checking the airframe for cracks and defects, adjusting fluid levels, making sure the landing gear functions properly, the flight controls work, checking the tires for structural soundness and running diagnostics on the electrical systems. Everything is documented.
“It’s a constant double and triple checking,” said Senior Airman Griffin Langiano, maintenance crew chief. “There are so many moving parts, and if you don’t take your time it’s easy to miss something. We have to be 100 percent positive the plane is mission capable.”
After an aircraft has surpassed a certain number of flight hours (think of it like miles on an automobile) it is put into “Phase,” which Ashton described as “getting a physical check-up.” The maintenance crew disassembles the aircraft and conducts an in-depth inspection of all the systems and components. This is a round-the-clock process involving more than 800 maintenance actions which can consume more than 1,500 man-hours to complete.
Job satisfaction is the driving force, said Tech. Sgt. Terrance Reese, aerospace propulsion craftsman. It is his responsibility to make sure the aircraft’s engines are performing the way they should. To do this, the aircraft is secured so it can’t move and the engines are run through their various settings.
“It can get very taxing,” Reese said. “It’s physical work, and you have to battle the elements, but it’s worth it. When I see the plane take off I think, ‘I made that possible.’”
There are several other specialties and maintenance shops. The Armament Maintenance shop ensures the function and reliability of the weapons systems; Aerospace Ground Equipment provides equipment for use on the flightline such as generators, flood lights, heaters for working in cold weather, and lifts to load munitions onto the aircraft; and the Crash and Recovery unit not only serves as first responders if there’s an accident, but also maintains the equipment to recover incapacitated aircraft all while being the experts with the landing gear, flight controls and aircraft’s tires.
The supply shop maintains a massive inventory of nuts, bolts, washers, and other parts used in maintenance while the support section issues equipment and tools. If they don’t have specific parts or tools readily available, the Metals Tech and Sheet Metal shops can make them.
Additionally, the Airmen of the Electrical and Environmental, Avionics, Weapons, Non-Destructive Inspection, Egress (maintains aircraft ejection systems), Fuels, and Hydro shops are all dedicated to the same mission; making sure the aircraft and everything on it remain in mission capable status.