October 11, 2011 (by MSgt. Mary Davis) - The thundering sound of F-16s slicing though the air is the sound of freedom and safety for many people, but for a handful of Bagram Airfield maintainers on the ground, it's the sound of success and hard work.
A1C. Adam Sexton, a 455th EAMXS crew chief, removes the wing panel of an F-16C Fighting Falcon on October 4th, 2011. Sexton, a Cincinnati native, is deployed from Aviano AB, Italy. [USAF photo by TSgt. Matt Hecht]
The 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron F-16 Phase Dock maintainers play a huge part in enabling the Fighting Falcons' mission to remain "Responsive and Precise."
After 400 flying hours, all F-16 aircraft go through an extensive inspection to repair and prevent problems, said Tech. Sgt. Matt Thornburg, F-16 Phase Dock chief. His phase dock team performs what is traditionally a seven-day inspection in only four days.
"Phase is important to give the jet adequate downtime to identify or prevent future problems. We coordinate with various shops on a daily basis and schedule them to perform work around the clock to complete the work within a 96-hour time frame," said the maintainer from Bridgman, Mich. "I ensure the shops have all the parts and supplies they need to ensure the work is performed smoothly." Thornburg schedules several aircraft maintenance shops including sheet metal, nondestructive inspection, avionics, engine shop, metals technology, egress and fuel systems maintenance. With so many shops waiting to perform their tasks, he has to arrange them in some semblance of order to keep maintenance flowing.
"There is little room for error during the 96 hours we have the jet," Thornburg said. "I schedule multiple shops to come in without interfering with each other. The ultimate goal is to never let the aircraft stand still. When your phase flow comes to a stop and you get backlogged, that's how I envision failure."
The Aircraft Maintenance Unit tracks the aircraft hours and prioritizes the jets. They track the hours and schedule the right jets to fly so they receive their scheduled maintenance.
Thornburg often goes to the flightline to observe a jet to see how it's running prior to it arriving at the phase dock. That way, he can see the aircraft and do any research on maintenance issues. It's not uncommon for Thornburg and his team to see the same jet two or three times during a six-month rotation.
"We created our own file to track the maintenance that occurs on each jet," Thornburg said. "That way we can keep an eye on a malfunction and have a historical record of what we've done and any reoccurring problems we find."
The team also implements Time Compliance Technical Order changes as well; so if there is a change in the aircraft, they perform the necessary maintenance to meet the new standard, Thornburg said. But even with this added responsibility, the team is able to "out phase" jets - fixing them faster than they come in. Lately, their average completion time is 68 hours, and they maintain a 90 percent pass rate.
Wrapping up his first deployment in a few weeks, Senior Airman Cade Jackson, F-16 Phase Dock team member, helped inspect the critical areas of the aircraft known for having prior maintenance issues.
"We inspect the aircraft for discrepancies that would hinder it from doing its job. Safety of flight is a big issue," said the airman from Athens, Texas. "We don't want to give pilots a plane they can't depend on. They need a reliable aircraft to bring the fight to the enemies on the ground."
Keeping the Fighting Falcons in top-notch shape in Afghanistan is a difficult task due to the fast-paced, manual labor involved, not to mention working 12 hours a day, six days a week, Jackson said.
"It's difficult to stay focused as well. After working on so many aircraft, they start to blur together - especially at my level where you are performing a lot of maintenance tasks," he said. "You still need to take it down to the basics and stay focused, even if you've done the job 100 times."
Being a mechanic is second nature for Jackson, who came from a family of mechanics. His father works on heavy equipment and his grandfather worked on autos.
"I love being a mechanic. I'm the first one in my family to join the military," he said. "I asked for an aircraft maintenance job when I joined the Air Force. It's in my blood."
Thornburg and his experienced team from Aviano Air Base, Italy
, face the challenges of a repairing aircraft under a short timeline, performing TCTO
changes and training a new crew of phase dock maintainers who will deploy from the Washington, D.C., Air National Guard in the near future.
"We operate under a lot of pressure, but we always get the job done and normally quicker than the time allowed," Thornburg said. "There are three things we strive for - to meet our AMU contract, meet the timeline and leave a better product. If we can meet all three, we're doing our job well."
Completing phase inspections is critical to the fighters being able to complete their mission, said Col. Geoffrey Bacon, 455th Expeditionary Maintenance Group commander.
"Our goal is to complete the process within four and a half days to be able to deliver good, quality airplanes back to the flightline," he said. "Our Airmen are out there focused on doing it right, so that when a pilot climbs into a seat, he knows the airplane is ready to do the job ... and that is critical."