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AWACS keep flying despite challenges

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM -- About 45 people deployed from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., are working together at a forward-deployed location to ensure the E-3 Sentry, better known as the Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft or AWACS, is ready to launch within an hour if needed.  (Courtesy photo)

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM -- About 45 people deployed from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., are working together at a forward-deployed location to ensure the E-3 Sentry, better known as the Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft or AWACS, is ready to launch within an hour if needed. (Courtesy photo)

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM (AFPN) -- About 45 people deployed from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., work together to make sure the E-3 Sentry, better known as the Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft or AWACS, is ready to launch within an hour if needed.

That is no small task, according to the man in charge of the maintenance of the AWACS aircraft at their deployed location.

Capt. James Hall, 405th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander, is the person responsible for the upkeep of the AWACS and also the KC-135 Stratotankers and the B-1B Lancers here. The way to maintain the aircraft is to make sure his people are taken care of, he said. This includes making sure they have the right equipment to perform the job, as well as the right parts.

Hall said the AWACS maintenance team has a pretty impressive maintenance record with a more than 99 percent flying schedule effectiveness rate and a 98 percent mission effectiveness rate. The team also has the lowest abort rate caused by maintenance-related problems at about 3 percent.

"This shows you that the people doing their jobs are focused and motivated," Hall said. "If they weren't, our rates wouldn't be so impressive."

For Tech. Sgt. George Lull, an AWACS radar systems craftsman and a reservist called up to active duty to fight the global war on terrorism, the weather can challenge his work on the 6-foot-thick radar dome that sits on top of the airframe. High winds can prevent Lull from going into the radar dome, he said.

The radar dome houses a radar system that covers the air from the Earth's surface up into the stratosphere, over land or water. The radar has a range of more than 250 miles for low-flying targets and can detect, identify and track enemy and friendly low-flying aircraft by eliminating ground clutter returns that confuse other radar systems.

High winds can prevent Lull from going into the radar dome, he said.

Normal maintenance on the radar system can take up to 12 hours. If he's prevented from entering the radar dome, Lull said, it delays the maintenance schedule.

The extreme temperatures of desert operations also pose challenges, he said.

"When I have to hook up an air conditioning unit to the dome, it adds two hours to the maintenance schedule just to cool it off," Lull said. To compensate for the heat, dome maintenance is often performed at night.

As an AWACS crew chief, Senior Airman Jeremy Timmerman is responsible for performing any maintenance on the aircraft. This includes pre- and post-flight inspections and refueling the aircraft. He's been with the AWACS since August 2002. Before that he was a crew chief on the KC-135.

"A crew chief for a normal aircraft is a generalist in nature," Timmerman said. "But with the AWACS there are a lot more systems and equipment to learn."

Hall said it takes every one of the 45 people here working together, doing different jobs, to put one AWACS in the air. "It's a very good team environment," he said.

"Because we're in a lean-manning situation, we have people here doing their primary jobs and assisting in other peoples' jobs to make sure the aircraft flies," Lull said.

One thing that makes life easier on the maintainers is the outstanding cooperation between the operators of the aircraft and the maintainers, Hall said.

"It's paramount that we have an open dialog with the aircraft operators to find out what is wrong with the aircraft," Hall said. "Without the dialog, we'd spend a lot more time troubleshooting the aircraft for problems, instead of fixing what is wrong with the aircraft. It saves us a lot of time."

"It's definitely a team effort that allows the aircraft to perform its critical mission," he said.

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