Thunderbird maintainers keep show running behind the scenes

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Chris Powell
  • Defense Media Activity-San Antonio
Throughout its 57 years in existence, the Air Force Thunderbirds air demonstration team has never canceled a performance due to maintenance issues.

When you factor in the Thunderbirds' most recent air show performance Nov. 6 and 7 during AirFest 2010 at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, continuing the streak of thousands of continuous shows, it's even more impressive.

"We make sure the pilots can walk out to the aircraft, pop in and go," said Staff Sgt. Nathan Kearns, a Thunderbird crew chief. "Unlike any fighter squadron in the Air Force, (the Thunderbird pilots) do not do a typical walk-around inspection as a normal fighter pilot would. They put faith in us that we're doing our job so they can come out and do their thing."

Once all necessary maintenance is performed on one of the Thunderbirds' 11 F-16 Fighting Falcons, an assistant crew chief inspects the aircraft and fills out the required forms. After that, a crew chief performs his own inspection and ensures the forms are accurate. Finally, the production superintendent completes a final inspection and signs the paperwork, officially declaring the aircraft as being ready for flight.

"It adds pressure that (the pilots) don't walk these aircraft over," Sergeant Kearns said. "Maintaining a $30 million aircraft and having the pilot's life in our hands is stressful, I won't lie, but it's something we've trained for.

"We go so far as ensuring every switch in that cockpit is set up for how that individual pilot wants it," he added.

Attention to detail is extremely important in their line of duty. That's why the maintenance team begins every day with an open-ranks inspection and cleans the aircraft several times a day.

"These jets are cleaned head to toe two or three times a day with wax and Windex," Sergeant Kearns said. "We wipe off every little bug smear."

Another unique feature of the Thunderbirds maintenance team is every assistant crew chief comes from a specialty that doesn't normally perform mechanical maintenance on an aircraft, such as an aerospace ground equipment mechanic or fuels shop Airman, said Staff Sgt. Brandon Bingham, a Thunderbird assistant crew chief. But as Thunderbird members, they perform their traditional duties as well as helping to maintain the aircraft, giving them experience they normally would never receive at an Air Force base.

"At a normal squadron, I would never touch an aircraft," said Staff Sgt. Jason Wilson, a Thunderbird AGE mechanic and assistant crew chief. "My job, as an AGE guy, is to take the equipment out to the aircraft. It's nice to come out here, work on the aircraft, become a crew chief and see what (the maintainers) do every day."

To get the assistant crew chiefs capable to perform mechanical maintenance on an aircraft, the team relies on on-the-job training from the crew chiefs.

"It's pretty much like you're a three level coming in, and you work your way up to be signed off like a five or seven level would," Sergeant Wilson said.

Ensuring every member on the team is properly trained is vital because the maintainers are tasked with another responsibility that involves homeland defense. If Air Force commanders need the F-16s back in the fighting inventory, the maintainers must quickly return them to full fighting capability, Sergeant Kearns said.

"We have a 72-hour timescale to return these aircraft to full combat capability, which has been tested," he said. "We did it in about 40 hours, minus the paint scheme. So these aircraft could definitely be ready if, God forbid, that ever happens."

But while the Thunderbird maintainers are tasked with unique responsibilities, they still view their mission as being the same as at an Air Force base.

"The basic principles of maintenance are the same," said Maj. David Lemery, the Thunderbirds maintenance officer. The only difference is we have the most motivated Airmen in the Air Force doing the work.

"They take great pride in knowing no air show has ever been canceled due to maintenance difficulties in the 57-year history of the Thunderbirds," he added. "They'll work non-stop, doing whatever it takes to get the jets ready for an air show."

The Thunderbird team includes 120 maintenance and support members from nearly 30 career fields, according to their official website.