March 19, 2004 (by Airman 1st Class Micah Garbarino) - They take great care not to be identified with test pilots and their immortal images, burned into our brains from movies like "The Right Stuff." But if they didn't have great faith in Hill AFB's maintainers, they could consider their job just as dangerous.
To ensure that all of an aircraft's systems are functioning properly and all the parts are firmly in place after passing through the depot process here, it must be flown before returning to the warfighting unit that owns them.
"We are the final check before the aircraft goes back to the customer," said Maj. Mark "Pep" Proulx, the assistant operations officer for the 514th and a functional check pilot for the F-16.
The 514th is a full-time unit of functional check pilots and crewmembers made up of active duty, Guard and Reserve. The 514th was realigned to join the Ogden ALC in September 1995. Simply put, they are the Ogden ALC's "quality control."
The center performs depot-level modifications and major maintenance on F-16s, A-10s and C-130s from across the Air Force.
"Our mission at the depot is to get aircraft operational and back to the warfighting unit as soon as possible, and the 514th is a big part of that. We couldn't accomplish the mission without them, but they wouldn't exist without the depot. So, in a way, we depend on each other to exist," said Chief Master Sgt. Terry Sawyer, the Maintenance Directorate superintendent of flight test.
The 514th quality-control checks involve performing flight checks, which means strapping themselves into planes that have usually been stripped to the bone and put back together again.
"At the Maintenance Directorate, we take an F-16, and it sits on the ground for 130 to 180 days. We take its wings off, take its engine out, take its nose off and other things, but our guys don't get in the cockpit and fly it. It takes a lot of trust for them (514th pilots) to do that," Chief Sawyer said.
"Whether they come in to the Center for a software upgrade or a major overhaul, we put these planes through a complete functional check flight," Major Proulx said.
The checklists for the check flights vary depending on the plane, model and maintenance or upgrades completed at the depot. According to the pilots and crewmembers, the standard check flight for an F-16 can take up to an hour, while the A-10 and C-130 flights can last for an hour and a half.
"We are specially qualified. We go through a lot of schooling. ... You have to be a versatile pilot. I could come in and fly an A model F-16 before lunch and a C model after lunch. There are four different F-16 models, and each model could have up to six different upgrades. ... We keep checklists with us in the cockpit, but for the most part we have them memorized," said Major Proulx. "If anything does go wrong, we are in contact with someone on the ground who has a huge book to help walk us through a specific problem."
If there is a problem, it usually isn't due to a lack of precaution. Once the Maintenance Directorate is finished with a plane, it does a series of ground checks before handing it over to the 514th, who then perform their own set of ground checks before sending the pilots and crew down the runway, Major Proulx said.
"They do engine tests, avionics tests, flight control systems tests. They test every system required to fly that airplane. When it is up to standard, they hand the plane over to us. We trust them with our lives," Major Proulx said.
Delivery of foreign military sales aircraft is also a part of the 514th mission. The pilots deliver planes all over the world, from Thailand
. Many of those aircraft come from the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center, or "bone yard," at Davis-Monthan AFB
, Ariz., and the 514th sends pilots there to test them once they have been reassembled, Proulx said.
While they don't test new, high-speed, top-secret, potentially-deadly aircraft, like Chuck Yeager or Buzz Aldren, the check pilots of the 514th keep the proven ones safely flying back to the warfighter.