Aircraft maintenance: Supporting the mission in the wild blue yonder

"Red Ball, bravo three, we've got a code three," the pilot calls over the radio, his voice muffled by his oxygen mask.

Like magic, a blue van of maintenance crew, including engine and avionics specialists, appeared from around the corner of the flightline to the waiting F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft. The production supervisor, already there at the hardened aircraft structure, jumped out of his truck and barked an order into the van. Two engine specialists leapt out of it, bags stuffed with laptops and equipment, while the crew chief continued communicating over the radio with the seated pilot.

To the casual observer, it's a fascinating exchange of hurried reactions and careful precision. To the maintainer, it's just a part of everyday life. The mission doesn't stop, and neither does maintenance.

"We have to provide the care and feed of our jets to ensure we have the iron for our pilots to train and fight," said Lt. Col Eric Morgan, 52nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander, about the maintainer's core mission.

From the long haul of tools from a hangar to a HAS to the 12-hour shifts to the exposure in the bitter elements of nature, the 52nd AMXS just keeps on chugging. But unlike most aircraft maintenance squadrons, this one has a single aircraft maintenance unit for a single fighter wing, which makes supporting the mission uniquely challenging.

Here's how it works: Generally, there's an aircraft maintenance unit within the AMXS to support each fighter squadron. The 480th AMU works under the 52nd AMXS, but it supports the 480th Fighter Squadron. The AMU is made up of various specialist sections, which are responsible for all servicing, inspecting, maintaining, weapons loading, and launch and recovery of the F-16s. Thanks to them, the AMU is able to deliver reliable combat assets to the 480th FS.

"In football, maintenance is the offensive linemen and the operators (pilots) are the quarterback. Without the talented O-line, the quarterback gets sacked," Morgan explained. "We are where the rubber meets the road."

A Little about Maintenance

Because of the largely deployed 480th AMU and the lack of a sister AMU to help out, there aren't a lot of bodies to go around. A maintenance squadron normally works three shifts: the day (maintaining flight schedule), the swing (inspecting and fixing issues) and the mid shift (preparing aircraft for next day of flight). The 480th AMU is keeping the jets in the air with just a quarter of the people to work on them during single 12-hour shifts.

Every 400 hours, the jet is required to undergo a phase inspection, which takes eight to 10 days. To simplify their job, they fix jets during periods of recovery between the launches, and afterward, they accurately account for tools and log all maintenance completed on the jets.

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany - U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. William Ingram, 52nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron electrical and environmental systems craftsman from Slidell, La., conducts a post-flight hydraulic engine differential pressure inspection Sept. 12, 2013. Aircraft maintainers provide pilots with fully functional aircraft allowing them to train and fight. This single unit maintains aircraft for the entire wing. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kyle Gese/Released)

Each aircraft has an assigned crew chief, whose name is stenciled on the right side of the aircraft. The crew chief, generally an airman first class or senior airman, is the supervisor in charge of all aspects of maintenance, including overall condition and status of their aircraft and its mission readiness. All inspections and status reports are sent to the production supervisor, who makes sure the entire fleet is mission ready.

Before a flight, crew chiefs like to be there an hour prior before the pilot steps (or, climbs into the aircraft, taxis and takes off), to make sure everything is good to go before sending the pilots into the sky. This time is for preflight troubleshooting, also known as "red ball," to address and fix any minor issues before flight. This is the time when the maintainer and the pilot work together with one goal: get that bird flying without any trouble.

"We could have the greatest pilots in the world, but if the jets aren't ready to go, then this mission doesn't happen, said Lt. Col. Steven Horton, 52nd Operations Group deputy commander. "These (maintainers) have been busting their tails to get what we've got in the air. They've been working hard. Trying to do normal operation with low manning is really tough, but they are doing great."

During the first three months of flying after the flying-hours-program reduction, 133 flights had been scheduled ... and 130 had been flown. According to Morgan, that's almost unheard of in the operations world with only one AMU. And that's with just 25 percent maintenance manning and most of the operations fleet, and after three months of no flying. How do they do it? Thanks to their past planning of fleet resiliency and forward-leaning posture, they've been able to pull off a couple miracles.

Fleet Resiliency: Success during No-Fly Months

During the three months of no flying during the flying-hour-program reduction, the maintainers weren't on vacation. In fact, they were doing something no one else in the Combat Air Force was doing: maintaining. Most bases put their aircraft in cold storage, where they gathered dust and waited for sunny skies once more. At Spangdahlem, the 52nd Maintenance Group kept the aircraft systems and parts running in preparation for when the Air Force restarted their flying-hour program.

"Other bases didn't have their aircrew come out and run the systems off, and when they started finding all their issues, it was the first day they started turning wheels again," said Master Sgt. Brandon Dunston, 480th AMU acting superintendent. Dunston was the mastermind of fleet resiliency, also known as "warm storage."

If the systems in aircraft sit for months in a storage unit, the rubber seals will dry without the engine oil lubricating them, resulting in leaks everywhere because the fluid. There's also a greater chance of breakage during flight if not maintained during periods of no flying. So, rain or shine, fly or not, every 15 days, every jet would get a system run by their loyal maintainers.

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany - U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Paul Garton, 52nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons team chief from Muskegon, Mich., conducts a Lau-118 functional check Sept. 12, 2013. The 52nd AMXS, at 25 percent manning, have contributed to 114 flown sorties of 116 in the past three months. As a preventative measure during the no-fly months, Airmen continued to run maintenance on aircraft systems and parts. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kyle Gese/Released)

"We're doing our thing, keeping the flight healthy," said Tech. Sgt. Robert Lumpkin, 480th AMU aircraft section training monitor, as he surveyed the busy flightline. "Our girls and guys do a good job. And they are ready to go, whenever they are needed to go."

But it wasn't just the maintainers tending to the aircraft. Maintenance coordinated with operations as pilots and maintainers worked together to keep their jets in flying shape. The operations side of the house helped out as those same jets would greet their pilots every 30 days for a full run of systems, including taxi checks.

When the jets broke during the practice runs, these issues were worked through before it really mattered: when flying hours returned.

"Breaking the jets during the maintenance runs and with the pilots in the seats taxing was a good thing, because now we are exercising those systems, but at the same time, we are finding faults that we wouldn't have found until we started flying again," said 2nd Lt. John McKinney, 480th AMU assistant officer in charge. "Then, all of them would have piled up at once, and then we wouldn't be able to meet the flying schedule."

Reconstitution: Getting Those Birds (and People) Back in Shape

After months in the desert, the AMXS will need to give the jets that return from deployment a lot of Tender Lovin' Care, known as reconstitution in the military. The jets will need to be washed, inspected and fixed, particular the overdue maintenance that was waived -- maintenance that wasn't done with the aggressive flying schedule and limited availability of parts and tools.

Returning jets have delayed discrepancies, or marks and bruises that maintenance didn't have time to address at the deployed location. Maj. Christopher Haley, 52nd AMXS Maintenance Operations Officer, likens downrange maintenance to charging a credit card ... there's still a bill to pay when you come home. After flying more hours in five months in a deployed location than a home-station jet flies in two years, the maintainers will have their work cut out for them.

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany - U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Cindy Frias, 52nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons crew member from New York, conducts a Lau-118 functional check Sept. 12, 2013. Aircraft go through a 10-day phase inspection every 400 hours. To ensure mission readiness maintenance leadership reviews all inspections. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kyle Gese/Released)

But it's not just the jets that need reconstitution; the people need it too. The maintenance members who return from their deployment will still have their well-deserved two weeks off, so that means the 25 percent will continue maintenance on the entire fleet.

"Those two weeks are vital as they merge into family life again," Haley said. "But we still have planes to take care of and pilots that need to fly. We have to manage how many can go on leave at a time."

It's AMXS's goal to get the fleet to be combat mission ready. And while it will be challenging, it won't be impossible, thanks to smart people with creative scheduling practices.

Haley gives the credit to the fleet resiliency plan, when the systems were worked despite no flying hours.

"The fleet resiliency plan makes the reconstitution plan doable," he said. "It paid huge dividends."

According to McKinney, when it comes down to it, it isn't a question if maintenance is vital to the mission. It's a statement of fact. To many maintainers who work long hours on the flightline, there's a sense of satisfaction that they are actively supporting the mission of providing decisive combat power.

"Maintenance is at the tip of the spear," Dunston said. "Without pilots, we have jets sitting on the ground. Without maintenance, the operations group has a lot of broken airplanes. It's a team effort. Together, we provide the combat commander the lethality of what the F-16 can do and provide to our nation's defense."

To read more about a maintainer's life, visit