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Team's efforts help warplanes go farther

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM -- Airman 1st Class Donald Slayton, an F-16 crew chief deployed as part of a tank build-up team from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., reconnects a wiring harness before buttoning up an auxilliary fuel tank. The tank was repaired after a scheduled inspection turned up defects. (Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Christopher Ball)

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM -- Airman 1st Class Donald Slayton, an F-16 crew chief deployed as part of a tank build-up team from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., reconnects a wiring harness before buttoning up an auxilliary fuel tank. The tank was repaired after a scheduled inspection turned up defects. (Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Christopher Ball)

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM (AFPN) -- What do a maintenance scheduler, an information management specialist and an F-16 Fighting Falcon crew chief have in common?

Normally, not a whole lot. But at a desert air base, they are all part of a 16-person team sent from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., that augments the 363rd Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron's war readiness material section, commonly known as the "tank farm."

The tank farm's mission is to supply external fuel tanks for F-15 Eagles and F-16s anywhere in the U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility. The tanks are used to extend aircraft range, allowing them to reach deeper into enemy territory or to be based further away. They can also allow aircraft to spend more time over the battlefield.

The Shaw team was sent here to help build new tanks. But with thousands of 600-gallon F-15 tanks and 370-gallon F-16 tanks built and stored here, there has been no requirement for new tanks yet, according to Staff Sgt. John Brassard, an aircraft fuel systems specialist. That does not mean the team has not helped so far, as the tanks on hand require regular inspection to make sure they are useable.

"Normally, the tanks are inspected every five years when they're stored inside," said Brassard, from Luke AFB, Ariz., and serving here as the noncommissioned officer in charge of the (war readiness material) section. "Here they're stored outside, so we have to inspect them every two years.

"The team members come from a wide variety of specialties," Brassard said. "They all went through a WRM tank build-up course before they got here, and now they're getting a lot of practical experience in inspection and repair of the tanks."

Senior Airman Luke Robertson is a maintenance scheduler from Shaw AFB. He has been part of the tank build-up team since 2001.

"Up until now, I only did (tank build-up) every six months," he said. "Now I am doing it every day."

Robertson said working here presents a world of difference from his normal job, which entails using a keyboard and computer to schedule maintenance on engines.

"Back home, I use a computer to remove and replace parts," Robertson said. "Here we physically remove and replace parts."

He and the other airmen of the team have adapted to the difference in tasks here.

"We may not be exactly maintainers, but we are acquainted with it," the scheduler said. "This job has opened our eyes to a broader spectrum of experience."

That experience can entail anything from changing an external fastener or a small seal to taking an entire tank apart and replacing internal parts.

"We started (this rotation) with nearly 70 tanks on our unserviceable line," Brassard said. "But in less than a month, all the tanks are serviceable and either flying on aircraft or on the ready line."

The inspections can be quite a task, but Brassard said his team is more than capable.

"(In) the last phase of inspections, we did 132 tanks and finished six weeks ahead of the normal cycle," he said.

The tank farm crew was already working around the clock, seven days a week to keep up with the inspection schedule. With the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the demand for tanks increased, according to Brassard.

"We've had about a 20- to 30-percent increase in shipping tanks out," he said. "But all we have to do is load them up on trucks and send them out. The team will be working just as hard as they have been."

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