OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea –
It obscured the sun, but the hazy June-time skyline did nothing to change the heat. Warm temperatures and moist air permeated the Draggins' Lair here as six Airmen got into the back end of a blue-painted "bread truck." They had just finished moving a slew of munitions, some by hand. They stood by as each pilot finished their pre-flight checklists, started their aircraft and prepared to taxi. But in the back of the bread truck there's no vent for air conditioning and, cramped by equipment, little personal room. The enclosed space spikes heat and humidity, turning an already hot space into a sweatbox. And, like watching an opposing player over-enthusiastically spike the football after scoring a touchdown, the crew is taunted by two small windows in the back. These windows are enclosed and un-openable, guarded by metal bars. "Those bars are there so we never forget where we're at," one jokes. "But seriously, now you're getting just a little look of what life in maintenance is like."
The 25th Aircraft Maintenance Unit weapons flight here is manned by Airmen dedicated to the upkeep and loading of weapons onto the base's resident A-10 fleet. Ensuring the 25th Fighter Squadron remains employable at a moment's notice is an indispensable capability for military readiness, and one that's equally important in and out of a contingency, said Master Sgt. William Warren, 25th AMU weapons section chief.
"If you don't have the personnel to load and maintain a weapons system, then you can't have weapons delivery," said Warren. "Our capabilities are influential for enemy deterrence, but we make sure we also bring the actual ability. Everybody has a role, and our role is making weapons delivery happen."
The section typically splits their personnel into crews of three, with a mission-essential requirement of 12 crews, said Warren. Each crew has a team chief and two crew members with designated jobs, and they can work on any number of aircraft any day.
Airmen of the weapons flight are currently working 12-hour shifts five days a week. Staff Sgt. Christopher Simison, 25th AMU weapons load team chief, said duties on the team vary by shift. The job includes moving and loading munitions, helping generate sorties, and recovering the planes once they return.
"A normal day really depends on what shift you're working," said Simison. "On dayshift, we mostly focus on getting jets in the air and working any maintenance we can on ones that aren't flying. Swing shift normally recovers jets and works a lot of scheduled maintenance on the aircraft, and mid-shift finishes up any leftover issues or maintenance to get the jets ready for flying the next day."
And while a typical duty day for Simison and his peers includes routine checkups and loading munitions, there are also additional responsibilities to take care of, including properly organizing and storing old or unused parts. A lot of these responsibilities are inspected by the unit's quality assurance personnel, who are dedicated to inspecting and grading the team's adherence to various checklists. Failing one of these inspections can have serious consequences.
Even beyond the scope of traditional and additional duties, one of the biggest responsibilities and challenges is ensuring everyone on the team stays current with all job and non-job related training and certification. There are multiple documents printed and displayed on a corkboard tracking training requirements, and at the June 22 Monday-morning roll call, Warren reminds his team to finish the eight-hour long SERE 100.1 Level A training.
"We have to make sure everyone gets their training and stays certified," said Warren. "I actually miss working (on the flight line), the Airmen here get all the fun, even though they probably don't think it's fun when they're doing it."
Simison said certification is something most people don't know about the job. Weapons flight Airmen are required to load 10 family-grouped munitions every quarter to maintain their certifications. He added that in between the 12-hour shifts, additional duties, and mandatory training, finding time to do the ancillary stuff can be hard, especially considering Osan's high operations tempo.
"This place has one of the highest tempos I've ever seen," said Warren. "All of our Airmen work extremely hard here. Here in Korea there's a sharp learning curve, but we all work together to get everyone on track and get it right."
Simison added that the work can be hard, but rewarding, and one of his favorite part's about the job is the quarterly load crew competition.
"I love the competitions because it lets you know who's really the best load crew on base," said Simison. "We're a competitive group of people, so those are a lot of fun."
Still, beyond all the requirements, the Airmen know there's a job to be done, and it's a job that doesn't rise or fall with personal comfort, hence the backseat oven in the bread truck. The sweat lost and skin tanned can't be quantified, but it has led to making the 25th Fighter Squadron becoming what Warren calls "The highest flying A-10 unit in the Air Force." It's not just an achievement for his flight, but something the entire squadron contributes to.
"Of course all the jobs out here make it happen," said Warren. "From the crew chiefs to avionics, everybody has their roles. The proof is in the numbers. We have the most flying hours of any A-10 unit in the Air Force. It's a source of pride, and sometimes pain for our guys, but we get it done and it's all because of the dedication and hard work our Airmen do."