Support: June 20, 2003

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The Iraq campaign was won by a lot of people you never hear about. U.S. Navy and Air Force aircraft maintenance crews are among the most under appreciated. During combat operations, the "maintainers" work 12 hour shifts, and can turn a returning aircraft around in 15 minutes, complete with a new pilot, fuel and weapons, plus a quick check for equipment problems. An F-16 squadron has 12 aircraft, and a unit of 120 maintainers, including 37 NCOs ("Crew Chiefs") who supervise, and do a lot of, the work. The most capable of these maintenance personnel are from the Air National Guard. Unlike active duty maintainers, the National Guard airmen have three to four times the years working on the aircraft, and have often worked on the same aircraft for 5-10 years. This gives the Guardsmen an edge, as they know the quirks and weak spots of individual aircraft. Hours of work go into checking out an aircraft that is finished with a days operations. Dozens of maintenance panels have to be opened so that items and lubricants can be checked for problems. Every 300 hours a more thorough check is made, and during combat operations, this usually means removing the engine to check even more components. Even seconds before an aircraft takes off, maintainers are rushing around the aircraft, running down checklists for access panels that must be closed and pins that must be removed. This final check includes visual inspection of bombs and missiles hanging off the aircraft and moveable parts that must be in the right position. There are times when the unit must "surge" (make the maximum number of sorties), and this can mean round the clock operations (as F-16s can operate day and night because of their night vision sensors) that can see individual aircraft flying half a dozen or more sorties. The maintainers have to be particularly careful during a surge, because missing a problem can result in a lost aircraft, or at least an aborted one as the pilot discovers something isn't working once the aircraft is airborne. On these deployments, the maintainers sleep in tents near the air strip, meaning they have to sleep through takeoffs and the other noises of a wartime base (alarms going off for various emergencies, and frequent small arms fire from a range that is always set up so the Air Force security troops can maintain their proficiency.) If there's bad weather, you just work through it. So the sandstorms the infantry were slogging through on the way to Baghdad, also hit the air force maintainers down the line. Everyone ate sand. The maintainers also suffer casualties. Not a lot of fatalities, but lots of wounds as airmen get cut by the many sharp edges as they scramble around an aircraft on a dark airfield, checking it out one more time before take off. You can usually tell how intense the flight operations have been by the number of blood trails on the flight line.

 


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