March 18, 2009 (by SSgt. Samuel Morse) - In late February, maintenance Airmen from the Air National Guard left the United States on a unique mission to Misawa Air Base, Japan.
SSgt. Benjamin Casarez, F-16 crewchief, stands by to help power-down a returning jet on March 6th, 2009. Sergeant Casarez, deployed from McEntire ANGS, is one of 31 Air National Guardsmen assigned to help fill manning shortages throughout the 35th Maintenance Group. [USAF photo by SSgt. Samuel Morse]
Their task: to help the 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, faced with manning shortages, recover and maintain F-16 Fighting Falcons returning from Joint Base Balad, Iraq
"Because the 13th Aircraft Maintenance Unit has deployed [to South Korea
], we are short of maintenance personnel and would be struggling to take care of our returning aircraft," said Senior Master Sgt. Michael Radford, lead production superintendent, 14th Aircraft Maintenance Unit.
Members of the 14th AMU, who returned from Iraq March 1, were given much-needed time off to be with their families after their deployment. This further compounded the problem of manning and the decision was made to bring in the Air National Guard.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime shot," said Staff Sgt. Brad Millhouse, an Air National Guard F-16 crewchief from the 122nd Fighter Wing, Fort Wayne, Ind. "I was surprised there were still slots left."
The contingent of 31 personnel came from across America including Syracuse, N.Y.; Columbia, S.C.; and Fresno, Calif. The majority, however, came from the 122nd FW in Indiana.
"It's great because you get to meet up with people you haven't seen in a while," said Staff Sgt. William Thomas, one of the few active-duty crewchiefs present from the 14th AMU. Sergeant Thomas' working partner, Tech. Sgt. Nathan Bechdolt from the 122nd FW, went to technical training with him after basic military training. They had not seen each other since then.
Many cited weather as the most challenging part of this assignment. A blizzard, dumping more than 10 inches of snow, greeted Sergeant Bechdolt on his very first day.
"We realized it snowed in Japan, but not like that," said Sergeant Bechdolt.
There were other challenges as well. The ANG
maintainers were trained on block 30
airframes -- an older version of the F-16 from the 1980s.
"None are trained on the block 50
aircraft so I've been training them every day," said Sergeant Thomas, a native of Lebenon, Miss.
A total of 16 fighters needed to be washed, cleaned, and brought up-to-date with scheduled maintenance. Sergeant Millhouse said playing his part in the war effort and supporting these jets gives him a sense of pride.
The guardsmen, who are scheduled to return to their home bases in late March, hit the ground running and really helped a lot, according to Sergeant Radford.
"We would not have been able to accomplish half the maintenance we completed without their assistance," he said.