Propulsion flight picks up Bagram mission

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Kathleen Polesnak
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
When F-16s can't take off downrange because of engine failures, it's up to about 90 Airmen here to fix them. 

Keeping F-16s aloft at Aviano Air Base, Italy, Balad Air Base, Iraq, and here has been the 52nd Component Maintenance Squadron Propulsion Flight's responsibility for almost a decade. Another downrange location added engines to the inventory about two months ago - Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. 

Since then, it has been a balancing act of keeping the four bases equipped to fly. "For our mission in this flight as a whole, we have to be very flexible," said Master Sgt. Wade Miller, propulsion flight production supervisor. 

"We're trying to balance meeting Bagram's needs, Balad's needs, our own needs, Aviano's needs. You never have a day where you can only worry about one customer." 

The challenges of adding another base's engine repair needs to an already busy shop are many. 

On top of the 18 days or more it takes to fix an engine, transport tacks on another seven to 10 days for Bagram, compared to five for Balad. Engines are transported via ground and air, and oftentimes, a functional engine heading downrange crosses paths with a recently damaged one heading here. 

The number of engines the propulsion flight diagnoses and operates on fluctuates just like the number of patients in a clinic. Depending on the atmosphere and missions the jets face, the shop may have a few engines or a slew of them. 

Everything from extreme heat, to sandstorms, to flight hours, can affect how many engines the propulsion flight is fixing at any given time. Also, the maintainers and pilots have to adjust to how the aircraft operates downrange compared to how it performs at their home station. 

Another setback is how the unit downrange performs its foreign object damage checks. For instance, an A-10 unit was stationed at Bagram before F-16s, but A-10s are less sensitive to FOD than F-16s as their engines are higher above ground. This is where communication is key, Sergeant Miller said. 

"It's a very dynamic environment because there are different bases with different philosophies and different units are in and out of the (area of responsibility)," he said. "The exchange of information is something that flows very easily. We're forced to adapt just like everybody else." 

And technology has helped the flight do just that. 

A camera similar to the one used by surgeons to detect internal medical issues - called a borescope -- is used by the engine flight to examine the engines' guts. The video is then uploaded and posted on a secure Web site so various maintenance shops can view it. This helps prevent engines from being transported all the way to Spangdahlem that don't actually require repair. 

"It definitely enables decisions to be made much quicker and more intelligently, and not based on educated guesses," said Master Sgt. Kip McClain, jet engine intermediate maintenance section chief. 

It takes about six Airmen per engine to run through the engine repair cycle - a process that takes an average of 18 days - and about 15 Airmen total to conduct the overall maintenance of an engine. From the time an engine is received for repair, to tearing it down and rebuilding it, to testing it in a Hush House, the people handling the process are young Airmen and NCOs. This makes repairing engines even more challenging, as Airmen with varied experiences and skill levels have to be grouped accordingly to accomplish the work. 

"Training is something we do every day," Sergeant Miller said. 

Regardless of their skill level, Airmen are proud of what they do for downrange operations, Sergeant McClain said. "They fully understand the support they offer for the war effort."

Some Airmen literally send off F-16s as they depart for deployments, recalled Capt. Kathleen Fitzpatrick , former propulsion flight commander. 

"They stand on the hill cheering as they launch downrange - they're proud of what they're putting into those aircraft," she said. 

"It's all in a day's work," Sergeant McClain added. "We're supporting (Overseas Contingency Operations) from this building."