Shaw crew chiefs bring jets to life at Red Flag

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston
  • 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
As the Las Vegas sun beams down, a dry wind whips across the aircraft ramp where 15 jets sit lifeless. With takeoff time a few hours away, a select group of Airmen fight the wind as they inspect and prepare the planes.

While carrying out their duties, they only care about one thing -- ensuring the jets are ready to fly. It's obvious this group of Airmen are more than a team. They lean on one another to get the job done, and it's clear the words "quitting time" simply don't apply to them.

F-16 Fighting Flacon crew chiefs assigned to the 20th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron out of Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., have worked relentlessly during Red Flag 13-3 to ensure the 79th Fighter Squadron's aircraft are ready for battle.

At a glance, it may appear the life of a crew chief is cool and maybe even fun, but there is a lot more to it than what meets the eye. With the pressures of the job mixed with the must for top performance at all times, it takes a special group of men and women to execute this particular Air Force mission.

Crew chiefs here have not only maintained 15 F-16 Fighting Falcons, but they have kept the falcon alive. This gritty group of Airmen serve as the life force for the aircraft by ensuring they give their undivided attention to a plane that can, at times, be unpredictable and stubborn when it comes to maintaining it.

"These jets are going to do what they are going to do," said Staff Sgt. Dominic Perrone, 20th AMXS crew chief. "Things can be going fine with the aircraft the entire week, and then the next thing you know something goes wrong. That's why we continuously pour over them to try and prevent things from happening, but you can't always predict what's going to go wrong until it happens."

About 23 crew chiefs from Shaw are participating in Red Flag. The majority of them recently returned from a deployment so they understand the importance of training, Perrone said.

Red Flag is a combat training exercise involving the air forces of the United States and its allies.

With the exercise in full swing, 20th AMXS crew chiefs have been performing what they call "12 turn eights."

"The way it works is there are two takeoff times per day," said Staff Sgt. Brandon Klask, 20th AMXS crew chief. "For the 'first go,' we launch 12 jets. After they return from that mission, we fix anything that may have broken during flight, and then turn around and launch eight of them for the 'second go.'"

As the Airmen continuously put jets in the air, it's understood among the unit that precision and excellence is a must at all times, Perrone explained. This is where the pressures of being a crew chief kick in -- after all, lives are at stake.

"It's our job to put pilots in the air with a safe jet," Perrone said. "Their lives are in our hands, so we have no choice but to always bring our 'A' game. We simply can't slack; it could cost lives and planes."

With each day that passes during the exercise, new challenges present themselves that the team of Shaw crew chiefs must overcome.

"Our biggest challenge has been ensuring every sortie counts . . . giving our pilots the best aircraft to execute their mission," explained Chief Master Sgt. Jason Tiek, 79th Aircraft Maintenance Unit chief. "We realize how important this training is for them and take great pride in seeing the fruits of our labor take off and land."

Before an F-16 is ready for flight, crew chiefs spend countless hours inspecting and maintaining it. Some of the duties these Airmen perform to ensure the Fighting Falcon is ready for battle consists of post flight, preflight and thru-flight inspections, as well as end-of-runway inspections. It is here that top performance at all times is vital, Klask explained.

"We inspect these jets every day," he continued "Before they fly, after they fly, when they reach the end of the runway, we inspect them. If we dip below a certain standard, it's noticeable, and the entire unit is affected by it."

"The only time these jets are not being looked at and inspected is when they are in the air," added Senior Airman Cecil Lovette, 20th AMXS crew chief.

The time passed as the crew chiefs explained their role in Red Flag and the importance of their job, but soon it was time to get back to what they do best, maintaining and prepping the fighting falcon for combat.

After getting the word that pilots were on their way to their jets for the "first go," the crew chiefs sprang into action, performing in sync with one another.

Perrone hooks up cords to the F-16 he would be launching, giving him communication with the pilot who would soon be in the cockpit. After situating his tool boxes and getting his headset adjusted, he begins a thorough inspection of the aircraft.

Upon completion of Perrone's inspection, the jet's pilot, a captain assigned to the 79th FS arrives. Perrone briefs him on the status of the aircraft and then walks through yet another inspection -- this time with the captain. After the pilot is satisfied, he climbs into the cockpit. He gets situated, while Perrone helps hook up his oxygen hose and makes sure he doesn't require anything else before closing the canopy.

The canopy seals shut and the captain comes over the radio, "Are we good to start engines brother?" Perrone responds, "We are good to start, sir."

The fighting falcon snarls as it comes to life. The noise is low at first and then grows louder. The exhaust of the plane looms behind the jet while Perrone continues talking with the captain.

As Perrone converses with the fighter pilot they run through several more function checks.

Finally, it is time to launch.

An assistant crew chief pulls the chocks from beneath the tiers of the plane. Perrone marshals the plane forward slowly and then stops it. He kneels down and examines the ramp one last time to ensure nothing is in the way. After being certain it is all clear, Perrone marshals the jet out the rest of the way.

As the captain rolls passed, Perrone salutes him. The captain salutes back and then gives the 'Tiger' hand signal showing pride for his unit, (79th FS 'Tigers'). After taxiing to his destination, he takes off, streaking down the runway with his afterburner glowing bright orange until his jet is airborne.

This is when Perrone and the other crew chiefs take a breath, gather themselves and begin getting ready to do it all over again.