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Airman 1st Class Justin Crumbley, 757th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, replenishes hydraulic fluid into the reservoir of an F-15 Eagle prior to take off at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., June 14, 2011. Airmen from the 757th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron accomplish intermediate-level maintenance on aircraft and support equipment components, maintaining avionics, laser guided weapons systems, pneudraulic system, fuel systems, engines, measurement/diagnostic equipment, electro-environmental, and egress systems. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. William P.Coleman)
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Aircraft maintainers: The muscle behind the mission

Posted 8/10/2011   Updated 8/10/2011 Email story   Print story


by 2nd Lt. Ken Lustig
Nellis Public Affairs

8/10/2011 - NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. -- As day breaks at Nellis Air Force Base, the sky above it is already alive with the sound of aircraft engines. At the moment the first rays of sunlight touch tarmac, dedicated Airmen have already been at work for hours preparing their aircraft for the day's sorties.

Nellis AFB is well known for its combat aircraft. Often, its runway is one of the busiest in the world. It is only through the dedicated efforts of aircraft maintenance specialists that this is possible.

With names like Eagle, Flanker, Raptor, Strike, Thunder, Tomahawk and Viper, Nellis' aircraft maintenance units, or AMUs, oversee the monumental task of keeping the base's approximately 140 permanently assigned aircraft in the air. With some exceptions, each AMU is responsible for a type of aircraft on the base and supports all the flying units that operate that type.

The AMUs exist to pool maintenance expertise and resources efficiently. This efficiency is needed because the size and combat power of Nellis' air fleet rivals many entire air forces.

Nellis' crew chiefs, specialists and weapons Airmen ensure that the base's eight assigned aircraft types and models, having more than 160,000 parts apiece and an average age of 26 years, remain airworthy and ready for the demands of combat flying on a relentless mission schedule. Since many of the airframes assigned here are older than the Airmen working on them, this is no simple task.

Master Sgt. Darren Wilson, a 757th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron production superintendent, says maintainers "live and die" by two metrics - the mission capability, or MICAP, rate and the maintenance non-delivery, or MND, rate.

The MICAP rate measures what percentage of the aircraft fleet is ready to fly sorties at any given time. The higher the percentage, the more aircraft there are that meet airworthiness standards. The MND rate represents the number of aircraft that were slated to fly sorties but did not because of maintenance issues.

As a "pro super," Wilson's job is to make sure these stats remain healthy by managing his AMU's resources and personnel, setting the maintenance schedule and then keeping it on track.

"If your sole purpose here is to fly sorties, and you can't fly sorties, then your purpose in life is not being met," Wilson explains. "Having an MND is like Kryptonite to us - it's what we try to avoid at all costs."

To this end, the Air Force ensures that each enlisted maintainer receives training that exceeds the standards of any other aircraft operator, whether they are a civilian company or another national military, Wilson says.

But this job requires more than just training. It also takes a concentrated, endless effort.

"Keeping these jets in the air is a 24-hour-a-day operation," explains Airman 1st Class Adam Crough, Strike AMU apprentice crew chief. "It takes a ton of work. But I absolutely love the job."

Crough reveals his dedication to his job by coming in to work early to double check his assigned aircraft, an F-15E Strike Eagle. Though he works the day shift, today he has come in well before dawn. He wanted to check work over with the night shift and to keep ahead of his maintenance schedule so his aircraft will be ready with time to spare for a flight at 1 p.m. His day will not end until the aircraft "recovers," or returns from flight, to its place on the Strike AMU ramp. Although his normal shift lasts between eight to ten hours, today he will work for almost 12 by the time he has completed the last of his duties.

His efforts also show through numerous personal flourishes on his jet. The "Dash-21" gear - sensitive equipment, seat, and intake covers and unit markings - are full of extras reflecting pride in Crough's unit and his aircraft. The dark gray paint scheme is remarkably clean, despite an endless attack from desert dust and hydraulic fluid. Even the tires have been detailed with wet-tire spray, an item not provided by the Air Force.

"When I was a kid, I thought this was the coolest thing," Crough says. "It's basically been my dream job, getting the chance to work next to these mammoth machines."

Senior Master Sgt. Anthony Smith, Viper AMU's superintendent, echoes the same kind of pride in his phone greeting.

"Thank you for calling the famous Viper AMU, home of the world's finest maintainers," says Smith as he answers a call.

Smith oversees maintenance for about half of Nellis' F-16 Falcons, which are more commonly referred to as "Vipers" among the flying community.

"I don't do anything around here, really," Smith jokes. Then he adds, "These guys make it happen. You will not find a harder working bunch of people anywhere."

One of those people is Senior Airman Johnathan Lavender, Viper AMU avionics journeyman, who, Smith says, has just returned from a deployment to Afghanistan. Lavender has been stationed at Nellis for three and a half years. Responsible for the flight instruments that the pilot will rely on to operate his plane, Lavender relates his experience as a specialist.

"It's a fun job and exciting to deal with everything and see it all come together," Lavender says. "Plus, we get to play with a bunch of crazy things."

As an avionics specialist, Lavender will maintain a long list of flight instruments and equipment. Before he arrived at Nellis, this required him to attend extensive technical training to gain the basic knowledge he needs to do the job.

Lavender says avionics Airmen receive nine to ten months of avionics technical school education and an additional three to nine months of electronics training. This is followed by on-the-job and additional formal training, which will continue throughout their careers. This accredited training will earn college credit and will provide extensive experience that will prepare him to troubleshoot a laundry list of systems aboard the complex aircraft with which he works.

"Each day varies for us," he adds. "We could inspect up to 1,000 different components in a single checklist."

The responsibility entrusted to maintainers like Lavender is enormous. They must keep multi-million dollar airplanes, often loaded with advanced weapons, flying safely. For Lavender, this is the highest of his job priorities.

"We are always concerned about the pilot's safety and other people's lives. When you work on a jet, you have to realize that the pilot is depending on you to do your job right so that plane is safe," he says. "It's nice to see when the jet goes up and we see what the pilot accomplished because of everything we did."

At Tomahawk AMU's end of the flight line, Staff Sgt. Jason Spears, F-16 weapons load crew chief, has eight years of Air Force service and is responsible for configuring, loading and arming the jets' weapons stores.

When charged with handling potent munitions in the demanding timeframe of Nellis' busy flying schedule, one can see that there is much that can go wrong. Spears sees it as a personal challenge to make sure that things go right.

"My favorite part of the job is when we have a deadline and we make it - with everything loaded perfectly," Spears says. "We know we did our job when the pilot comes back and there weren't any failures."

To keep things operating smoothly, the Air Force standardizes all maintenance tasks with technical orders, which describe exactly how every step should be completed, Spears explains. By following them and paying attention, the risks are greatly reduced and safety is preserved.

"The job is pretty easy if you're a hands-on type of person. As long as you practice and read the material, anyone could do it," he explains.

This modesty deflects attention from his expertise and years of experience training Airmen on the Nellis' flight line, but the same confidence in getting the job done can be found among maintainers across the ramp.

The job of maintaining aircraft does not happen without each AMU's support section. There, thousands of tools and parts are stocked, managed, ordered, maintained, inspected, labeled, repaired and issued so that the job on the flight line can continue.

Labels and carefully-sized spaces outlined with tape or cut into foam ensure everything has a place and everything is in that place, under the watchful eye of the non-commissioned officers that run the shop. Without this orchestration, jets might not get fixed on time, money could be wasted and delays would ripple throughout the mission.

With the help of the support sections, the job continues, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Back at Strike AMU, Crough watches his jet line up on the runway, a few hundred yards off. It punches its way into the air under power from the engines he has worked on. As Crough watches the twin-tailed fighter climb into the distance, he summarizes the experience of being a maintainer:

"Some days are better than others, you know - there are a lot of long hours in it sometimes," he said. "But you can really see that what you did mattered when you see that launch go. The jet takes off and gets back safely. You did that."

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