April 20, 2007 (by SrA Candace Romano) - At first glance, it looks like just another day for the maintainers; but take a closer look, and the frenzy of activity around the F-16 Fighting Falcon says otherwise.
SrA Gil Alicea, of the 332nd EMXS, removes panels from an F-16 during a routine phase inspection at Balad AB on April 16th, 2007.
The sound of electric drills and pounding hammers resonates inside the hardened aircraft shelter as upbeat music fills the empty spaces in between. Clusters of highly-trained, highly-greased crew chiefs shout orders over the music and din, wielding power tools and a variety of gadgets. Welcome to Day One of an F-16 phase dock.
Members of the 35th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron and Weasel phase team are deployed here from Misawa AB, Japan, providing safe, reliable aircraft to support the mission. Their job is to take apart an F-16 Fighting Falcon and put it back together - in just a few days.
"We literally de-panel and inspect the entire jet. If anything is broken or requires maintenance, we fix it, and then we put it all back together again," said Tech. Sgt. Ethan Thomas, 332 EMXS phase dock chief. "It's like taking your car in to the shop for a check up or scheduled maintenance. Just like they run through their checklists on your car, we've got our own checklists to complete."
The checklist for an F-16 is understandably longer than that of your average family minivan, but nonetheless, one the phase team completes working around the clock in 12-hour shifts.
"We perform scheduled maintenance to make sure the jets are good to go internally," the sergeant said. "On the flightline, crew chiefs don't see the wires, tubing and ducts inside the panels. Our job is to thoroughly inspect every aspect of the internal workings of the aircraft, thus ensuring the safest, most reliable combat-ready airframe possible.
"Preventive maintenance is also important - if there's a part that needs to be ordered or replaced, this is when we do it."
The phase team begins with removing the panels of the aircraft, a tedious task which usually consumes a large portion of the first day. They also perform landing gear and flight control checks. Specialized work cards are used for sections of the aircraft: forward, tail section, landing gear and top. Finally, parts are examined for wear and stress, from the smallest screw to the biggest bulkhead. Nothing goes unnoticed, including the occasional foreign object. Any parts that need to be fixed or replaced are identified.
Trained Quality Assurance technicians evaluate all the work, inspect every part of the aircraft, and review aircraft forms.
The goal is to provide the best possible maintenance on the ground to put the F-16 back in the sky for combat operations - every 400 flying hours.
"The end result we constantly strive for is to pass the QA evaluation and have the aircraft fly Code 1 straight out of phase, which means there were no discrepancies noted by the pilot," said Sergeant Thomas, a 15-year Air Force vet.
Average phase docks vary from four to five days, although the phase team has been known to complete one in three days, according to F-16 crew chief Senior Airman Gil Alicea.
"We usually get another jet in here before the week's over," said Airman Alicea, who is currently on his second deployment. "It's a constant cycle to ensure all the jets are mission capable."
With three fighter squadrons flying more than 4,000 hours per month, the need for phase dock increases as the aircraft hits the 400-flight-hour mark and is required to complete the scheduled phase inspections, according to Master Sgt. James Hatin, maintenance operations flight superintendent.
"In the combat zone, we're flying more sorties every week, increasing the need for phase dock inspections," said Sergeant Thomas, a West Palm Beach, Fla., native. "Back stateside, an F-16 may need a phase dock inspection once a year; but in this deployed environment, an F-16 needs one every 120 days or so."
These maintainers are no stranger to how their job directly correlates to pilot safety and the ability of the aircraft to be mission ready.
"We conduct hourly inspections [every 400 flying hours] to make sure the aircraft is free of any defects," said Staff Sgt. Justin Johnson, a phase inspection team member who is currently on his fifth deployment. "We strive to give the aircraft back to the flightline, knowing every system is fully functional.
"As a crew chief on the flightline, I was more concerned with how many sorties we were flying. Now that I'm in phase, I can take my time, making sure every bolt and screw is in the right place. It definitely increases our attention to detail when we're doing phase inspections."
After hours of painstaking labor and many turns of the wrench, there's nothing like having the aircraft's engine start up and watching it roll out of the HAS.
"We perform the required scheduled inspections and preventive maintenance, turning around a better product for the flightline," said Sergeant Johnson, who has worked on both the F-16 and F-117A Nighthawk. "If we have zero defects after a QA inspection, that means we did our job. When we hear it take off on a mission, that means we did it well."