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Mission Matters: Time and Weather Won't Win
by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel - December 27, 2015

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EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska - With the clock about to strike 2 a.m., the front door of the 354th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron repeatedly swings open and shut as Airmen file in for an earlier than normal start to their day of missions.

With jets to launch, which will support exercise training on the opposite side of the nation, one thing is on each Airman's mind — success.

Exhaust billows as two F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft engines start in Dock 7 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Dec. 7, 2015. More than 30 maintenance Airmen worked an early shift to help launch several jets to Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., for Checkered Flag 16-1, a large-force exercise that simulates a large number of aircraft in a deployed environment to cross-check weapons systems. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel)
Exhaust billows as two F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft engines start in Dock 7 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Dec. 7, 2015. More than 30 maintenance Airmen worked an early shift to help launch several jets to Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., for Checkered Flag 16-1, a large-force exercise that simulates a large number of aircraft in a deployed environment to cross-check weapons systems. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel)

“No one here comes to work and says, ‘I'm going to be terrible at my job today,'” said Maj. Blair Byrem, the 354th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander. “I'm a lucky commander to have people like I do. I set out a task and sit back and watch the professionals succeed.”

Each maintainer carts tools to the assigned aircraft and begins to complete a lengthy list of tasks, each with a technical order to make sure a microscopic detail isn't missed. Hours pass as wrenches turn, fluids flow and the sinister paint scheme jets are readied for take off.

“The TOs are step-by-step to keep thing consistent, safe and correct,” said Staff Sgt. Eric Sandberg, a 354th AMXS crew chief. “Even if you have done the job a million times it doesn't mean you won't miss something. Changes happen and complacency can create mistakes. They become especially important on days like today when it's cold outside and everyone is running on little sleep.”

After hours of preparation pilots “step” – the long walk from the 18th Aggressor Squadron – through the frigid cold to their respective cockpit. Not a mechanical worry is on their mind because maintainers have been there as the hand on the clock spins round, ensuring safety, mechanical soundness and cleanliness.

While the last checks are made, two things loom outside: darkness that won't end for several hours and temperatures well below zero. These two things won't put a hitch on the mission, however.

“It is so cold, but the mission must go on,” Sandberg said. “Being able to complete our tasks despite the cold and dark is part of what makes us the best.”

After the pilots are secured into the seat they will occupy for the next eight hours, the cockpit slowly seals shut with a click, closely followed by an ear-piercing alarm sound indicating the enormous bay doors are opening. The 65-degree interior air visibly wafts into the cold as the inversion crumples the light into wisps, reducing visibility.

With a huge puff of smoke, each jet whines to a start and the hustle begins – go time.

“Once those doors open is when all your hard work starts to show,” Sandberg said. “We did it, they are ready to start, ready to taxi; that's when the good feeling starts.”

The air is a frosty 10 below zero outside, but the vacuum of the powerful engines chills the air to well below minus 30. However, no temperatures change is apparent as the work goes on. Airmen bustle around seven aircraft, seemingly silent as their voices and movement are muffled by the blare of turbines.

“More than 200 days out of the year it's below freezing and 60 days a year it's below zero and anywhere around the world when you are working on a car or a jet it's exasperating in these temperatures,” Byrem said. “With the years of sending jets to exercises and events around the globe, we have managed to launch a full complement of aircraft, never failing to fulfill our commitment. We rarely will miss a sortie due to mechanical failure at the 18th regardless of the weather. That is a testament to the physical and mental toughness of the Airmen who work in this unit.”

With a quick salute from seven crew chiefs, each aircraft enters the darkness outside. It takes a squint to see anything but the running lights as they hustle down the long, icy taxiway. The roar may be distant as the alarm sounds and the doors shut, but the job isn't done.

“We go out to the end of the runway for one final check,” Sandberg explains. “That's our last chance to see anything we missed, have the weapons teams arm the weapons systems and see our work take off.”

At last the work is nearly complete. However, the endings of stories aren't always happy.

With hours of work into each jet and the anticipation of take off on everyone's mind, a mechanical failure held up the aerial re-fueling aircraft, which was traveling to support them on the way to Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. The hold up costs the day's work and promises a mulligan tomorrow.

“One more long 12-hour shift is the first thing that hits your mind,” Sandberg said. “Sure, it's a knock to morale, but we all stick together and it just makes the next successful launch that much sweeter.”

More photos available below

By U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel
Provided through DVIDS
Copyright 2015

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