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Life support technicians keep pilots safe

Aug. 25, 2006 -- MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, Romania -- Five life support technicians with the 22nd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron work split shifts to ensure the equipment entrusted to their team is in stellar condition for the pilots and their mission. 

More than 270 Airmen were here Aug. 8-25, supporting the 22nd EFS in Exercise Viper Lance 2006, an air-to-air and air-to-ground training scenario with the Romanian air force and their MiG-21 pilots. 

"You don't ever want to test the equipment (the life support technicians) work on, but if it's 'your day,' you have to depend on that equipment to save your life," said Maj. Brett Rawald, 22nd EFS pilot. "Every pilot in this squadron is confident that (their equipment) will work as advertised." 

Having another person's life in their hands is an undertaking the 22nd EFS life support team takes seriously. After each pre-flight brief, the pilots swarm into their area, grabbing gear and suiting up for their flights. The technicians not only make sure the equipment is in excellent condition; they also look over the pilots before they head out the door. 

"We make sure everything is buckled and worn as it's supposed to be worn," said. Staff Sgt. Tim Kelso, 22nd EFS life support technician. "If anything did happen on their flight, then the equipment we work on would save their lives." 

The life support technicians repair and inspect just about everything a pilot wears and takes into the cockpit. 

The gear includes a gravitational force, or G-Force, suit with a bladder worn on the legs and lower torso. A hose connects from the suit to the F-16 in the cockpit, allowing air to fill the bladder when the pilots are under high G-Forces. The air pushes against the muscles that contract, keeping the blood flow toward the upper half of the body to help prevent blackouts. 

"When we're pulling a lot of Gs, the blood tends to pool toward the lower extremities," Major Rawald said. "The suit helps keep the blood toward the brain." 

A harness strapped onto the pilots' backs has a two-fold job. It connects and latches the pilot into the seat of the F-16, and it has a long collar that wraps around the front, down the chest, and acts as a life preserver unit, or LPU. 

If a pilot ejects from the cockpit, the harness keeps the person strapped into the seat, and if needed, a floatation device is readily available. 

"Our LPUs automatically inflate when we pull on the red knobs on the bottom," the major said. 

The third key piece of equipment needed when pilots run out the door is the helmet and mask. 

During a post-flight equipment inspection, Sergeant Kelso noticed a hose was too long inside of a helmet. He disassembled the helmet and trimmed the hose. The hose connects to the bladder inside the helmet, and the bladder fills up with air, similar to the G-suit, to make a tighter seal for the mask on the pilot's face when pilots experience G-Forces. This keen eye and attention to detail keep the equipment operational and the pilots safe. 

"What they do may seem mundane to the outsider, but they work on equipment that has the ability to save someone's life," Major Rawald said. "Our life support techs here are doing a great job. It's impressive to see them pick up and move their operations to a new location, which is basically bare, and continue the high level of support they provide at home station." 

The job is definitely more "hands on," said Staff Sgt. Melissia Wells, 22nd EFS life support technician. 

Most of the time, the last-minute replacements at a deployed location are from helmets -- frayed cords, sticking valves and microphones not testing properly. There are all kinds of fixes the life support team here is ready to patch up and mend. 

"We hope that no one will ever need to see the benefits of our work here," Sergeant Wells said.