Finishing Strong: 81st maintainers rock final exercise

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Nathanael Callon
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
A radio squawk sounds across the maintenance hangar. The call sets Airmen of the 81st Aircraft Maintenance Unit into motion like clockwork. Some grab tool boxes and laptops, others reach for their hearing protection.

It's an orchestrated effort that every single Airman in that room knows by heart.

As they step out of the hangar, a cool Atlantic breeze fills the area with a light sandy, oceanic fragrance.

Soon, they hear engines drone out of sight; the sound slowly increases in volume as the aircraft land and taxi back to their resting places.

The fragrance of ocean quickly dissipates and the stifling odor of exhaust takes its place.

The sandy environment isn't the typical landscape the Airmen stationed in Germany are used to, but they are able to work in any environment, much like the A-10 Thunderbolt II planes that they maintain. They are in Monte Real, Portugal, for REAL THAW 13. It's the last exercise the 81st will be a part of before their inactivation later this year.

REAL THAW helps keep pilots combat-ready for any sort of contingency mission. They trained with the Portuguese military on scenarios like combat search and rescue, close air support, convoy escort and forward air control. It also gives the 81st Fighter Squadron an opportunity to build partnership with the Portuguese military and other NATO allies.

Being part of an exercise of this size and importance also gives the maintainers--who have kept these jets in the air through a myriad of exercises, deployments and contingency operations--a chance to reminisce on their time as part of the 81st.

Each maintainer has something different to say about why they love the A-10. For some, it's the aircraft's capabilities. For others, it is the ease of maintenance involved with it.

"It's like working on an old car," said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Kyle Ring, an 81st Aircraft Maintenance Unit crew chief from Modesto, Calif. "There are no computers or anything that make it complicated. It's just hands-on maintenance--getting in there and doing it."

Most of its parts are interchangeable, and the maintainers don't need lavish facilities to service the jets.

The A-10 is based on 1960s technology and has been in the Air Force aircraft inventory since 1975, when the first plane was delivered to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. Designed for low air speeds and altitude, the A-10 has been a lifesaver for troops on the front lines for close to 40 years now.

It's earned several nicknames throughout the years, but it is commonly referred to as the "Warthog." The maintainers who dedicate long days to keep the A-10 in the air refer to it simply as "the Hog."

Everyone brings a special skill to the aircraft. Jet engine mechanics, avionics technicians, crew chiefs and weapons members all work together to deliver firepower to where it's most needed.

When the A-10s fired their last rounds on the range in Portugal, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Joshua Sisneros seemed conflicted. His face beamed with satisfaction as he walked around the GAU-8 Avenger 30mm Gatling gun, but pensive sadness intensified in his eyes. "The Hog" fired 1,050 30mm rounds on the range, and the smoke-covered casings still sat in the cage.

It's been six years since Sisneros first started working on the A-10 as a weapons load team member. He's now the team chief and oversees his Airmen as they inspect the gun that he's grown to love.

"This gun is my baby," said Sisneros. As the team chief, he is responsible for loading bombs as well, but has a special admiration for the gun, which can unleash 3,900 rounds a minute and punch holes in tanks and armored vehicles like a can opener puncturing a can of tuna.

Some A-10s still in the Air Force inventory sport the "jaws" look, with shark teeth snarling on the nose, and a GAU-8 Avenger distinctively on the front. The 81st isn't one to show off, and modestly wears a flat gray coat of paint and a tail flash with bold yellow tips on the twin vertical tails.

Although there have been a few upgrades throughout the years, the most recent "C" upgrade in 2009 brought about a plethora of new technology, including GPS-guided munitions, multi-function color displays, and Situational Awareness Data Link capability, which allows aircraft to transfer information electronically between each other and with joint terminal air controllers on the ground.

"I love this plane. It's amazing. It's the only plane that can do air-to-ground combat like it does," said Ring, who has spent four years working on "the Hog" in all types of weather, from the blistering heat in Arizona to below-freezing ice storms in Germany.

Wherever the 81st goes in Europe, whether it is the Czech Republic, Romania or Portugal, the A-10 always seems to draw attention.

"You get a real appreciation for your job when people come out and want to learn about your aircraft, because there really is nothing like it anywhere else in the world," said Sisneros.

The decision to inactivate the 81st came with the Department of Defense's resolution to cut almost $500 billion from the defense budget over the next 10 years. Five A-10 squadrons across the Air Force, including Air National Guard and reserve units, were told to close up shop. The 81st is the final A-10 squadron in Europe, and with its inactivation, all that will be left of the Panthers legacy is the Airmen who were a part of it.

Many of these maintenance professionals will work together in the future, since the number of places they can go is now narrowed to a few bases.

"It's a really small community, and the best part of the job is working with great people," said U.S. Airman 1st Class Fernando Sorto, 81st Aircraft Maintenance Unit crew chief from Plano, Texas.

The Air Force isn't getting rid of "the Hogs." The remaining planes are expected to join existing squadrons in Davis-Monthan AFB and Moody Air Force Base, Ga.

The 81st has supported a number of contingencies overseas since they adopted the A-10 more than 19 years ago. The 81st was the first U.S. Air Forces in Europe squadron to deploy for Operation Southern Watch, and enforced the United Nations no-fly zone over the skies of Iraq.

Other European contingencies like Operation Deny Flight in 1994 and Operation Allied Force in 1999 benefited greatly from the A-10s being already staged in Europe, since they were geographically close to the conflicts and quickly supported NATO's directives.

The 81st deployed to Afghanistan many times in the past decade, where they have provided close air support to coalition ground forces in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

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