JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Currently, the U.S. Air Force fields more than 35 types of aircraft, with an equally exceptional number of dedicated and precision-based crew chiefs to maintain them.
Focused on the need for high standards, the 703rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron (AMXS) supports Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson’s worldwide contingency and maintenance operations for the 3rd Wing, 11th Air Force, and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD.
Crew chiefs assigned to the 703rd AMXS, which is responsible for the maintenance of three types of aircraft, are divided into either the 962nd or 517th aircraft maintenance units (AMU).
“Crew chiefs’ responsibilities start with the entirety of the aircraft they are in charge of,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Matthew Kennedy, a 962nd AMU crew chief. “They service and repair everything coming back from daily inspections, which can include things like oil, hydraulics, and fueling the jet. In addition to those repairs, we also attend to airframes and time-inspection items such as engines, tires and brakes. If the job seems endless, it is.”
One type of aircraft maintained by the 962nd AMU is the E-3 Sentry. As an airborne warning and control system or AWACS aircraft, it performs an essential mission, distinguishing between friendly and enemy activity. It also provides airborne command and control in addition to conducting all-altitude, all-weather surveillance. AWACS missions often last more than 10 hours, which is a significant feat for a jet that has been in commission for more than 35 years.
"It's a unique challenge to work on a plane in high demand,” Kennedy said. “Due to the long hours these planes are in flight, we are very detailed with the multiple types of inspections we conduct to make sure this thing continues to fly and fulfill its mission.”
Often the E-3 Sentry, C-17 Globemaster III, and C-12 Huron maintainers find themselves with similar responsibilities, but with varying technical differences.
No matter which aircraft it is, new Airmen are never alone in a repair. After several months of technical training and a year of on-the-job training, Airman typically complete their first level of certification. Even after gaining further certifications, there’s always something new to learn, Kennedy said.
“Because systems are completely different on each aircraft, it was challenging for me to go from a KC-135 to an E-3 Sentry,” Kennedy said. “Even though it is a similar plane and I was already seven-level certified on the first type of aircraft, I had to become seven-level certified on the E-3 as well.”
Although aircraft maintenance crew chiefs never stop learning and work around the clock to keep the mission moving, keeping a positive outlook is a personal choice made by each individual.
“Just when it looks like a repair is nearing completion, I always take 10 minutes and check on the next thing needing to be done,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Caleb Langel, a 517th AMU C-17 Globemaster III dedicated crew chief. “I find that if I expect there to be another repair, it really helps me keep a good attitude and healthy expectations for what the shift might be like.”
Sometimes an eight-hour shift can turn into 10 to 12 hours, requiring a person to maintain a flexible attitude, Langel said.
“On the flightline, there is a saying that ‘nothing is certain until it has already happened,” Langel said. “The priority of a mission can change constantly, so keeping the right mindset is key to keeping your cool. I have learned that rolling with the punches is absolutely necessary in this job.”
In addition to staying flexible with regular aircraft repairs and maintenance, a geographical area can also be a factor in the workload.
“Every location can be as different for an aircraft as it is for its maintainer,” Langel said. “For instance, at JBER we have to deal with extremely cold temperatures. Just as we have to wear added layers to protect against the severity of the cold, there are extra steps to protect our aircraft. From de-ice and anti-ice measures, to the removing of engine covers, we keep our aircraft and ourselves working hard despite the sub-zero conditions. The process of doing a repair in this climate is harsh, but also very rewarding.”
Regardless of both differences and similarities among the aircraft, crew chiefs must maintain an excellent work ethic and adapt to service before self.
“I have held the titles of flying crew chief, dedicated crew chief, and crew chief, and no matter what title is given integrity is always the first step in being a good crew chief,” Kennedy said. “Attention to detail must closely follow this. Whatever aircraft you are assigned, you are that final ‘safe to fly’ and the pilots and crews depend on you.”