JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska (AFNS) -- On the night of Oct. 4, 1958, 111 passengers boarded a Pan Am Boeing 707 at New York's Idlewild Airport for a nonstop, 8-hours and 41-minutes flight to Paris' Le Bourget Airport. The journey ushered in the jet age for the United States and made the world a seemingly smaller place.
Nearly 34 years later in 1992, the final E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft rolled off the assembly line. Based on the venerable 707-320 models, the E-3s were among the last 707s built, ending serial production 14 years after the last commercial passenger variant left the factory.
More than 55 years after the 707 began commercial service and 22 years after the last Sentry was delivered to the Air Force, Airmen of the 962nd Aircraft Maintenance Unit, 703rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, are charged with keeping Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson's two E-3s mission ready.
Master Sgt. John Sheuer, the 962nd AMU production superintendent, said it can be a challenge harnessing eight different career fields for three around-the-clock shifts, which ensure 24-hour support of the 962nd Airborne Air Control Squadron and the Alaska NORAD Region AWACS mission. It's a contrast to operations at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., where the 552nd Air Control Wing operates 28 E-3s serviced by hundreds of maintainers.
Sheuer said Sentry maintainers who cut their teeth at Tinker AFB can become accustomed to a parochial maintenance environment. For instance, aircraft hydraulic systems specialists would band together and jump on an E-3 with a radar dome hydraulics failure, but would not typically be expected to change a tire.
Because of shift work at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, there may only be one or two hydraulics specialists available, so it necessarily becomes an all-hands-on-deck operation to get the radar dome fully operational again.
"You may have eight to 12 people on a shift," Sheuer said. "You don't have the luxury of waiting for more guys to come in. You borrow somebody."
Tech. Sgt. Christopher Foreman, a 962nd AMU radar surveillance craftsman, said he spent 10 of his 12 years of service at Tinker AFB. Until he reported to Alaska, Foreman focused solely on radar maintenance. Today, he is involved with all aspects of E-3 maintenance, from aircraft launch and recovery to fitting engine covers.
Because there are a lot of common skills among electronics disciplines such as working with radar, computers and instruments, Foreman said the career fields help each other out more than they would at other bases.
"Electronics is electronics," he said. "A hot wire over here is still a hot wire over there. So, if they have an electronic problem, I can pitch in and help them. If they need muscle to change a tire, I can help with that. Maintenance is maintenance. You're not going to be good at everything, but you're going to be good enough to pitch in where needed."
The unit's multifunctional approach paid off when a 962nd AACS E-3 Sentry deployed last month to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, for exercise Cope North 2014, with maintainers of the AMU ensuring the airframe didn't miss a mission due to maintenance.
Sheuer said the AWACS self deployed Feb. 14 with 24 aircrew, 12 AMU Airmen, mission equipment and the tools and parts necessary to keep the Sentry fully operational.
The production superintendent said he coordinated closely with the E-3 crew that deployed from Kadena Air Base, Japan, to ensure he brought the right 12 Airmen. A Sentry normally deploys with 18 AMU Airmen, yet the small crew enabled 15 of 16 missions, missing one due to weather.
"Since we were held to 12 people, we had to make the most of a package footprint of 12 people, including as many multi-role people as possible," Sheuer said. "Its a pretty good chest bump on your Airmen when you don't fail any missions because of maintenance. If the weather holds you down, there's nothing you can do about mother nature."
Constrained to one shift's Airmen during the exercise made for some long days, Sheuer said. During preventive maintenance of an engine's pressure shutoff valve, they found a broken pre-cooler. The E-3 is allowed to have three of four operational, but it left them no margin for error. The part was dispatched from Kadena AB via commercial carrier and was delivered on a Saturday, a scheduled day off from the exercise.
"Our goal was to maintain the aircraft and if it requires you to work a 12-hour shift on Saturday or Sunday, or not have any days off, then that's what we're paid to do," Sheuer said. "We're paid to work that aircraft."
Sheuer said because the E-3 can be classified as a legacy airframe owing to its 707 platform, the plane's age comes with maintenance advantages and disadvantages.
Decades of institutional knowledge certainly help to prevent recurring problems, he said, and legacy aircraft develop patterns and wear cycles that can be predicted and mitigated.
While many parts are warehoused at Tinker AFB, including crated TF-33 engines that haven't been produced in nearly 30 years, older aircraft makes for some interesting challenges finding certain parts, Sheuer said. For years, the E-3's two galley refrigerators were typically repaired at Tinker AFB -- cooling fins cleaned, joints re-soldered and Freon refilled. It saved the Air Force money, but a demand was never recorded for the FAA-approved refrigerators, which consequently disappeared from the supply chain -- making replacing an irreparable refrigerator difficult.
Despite the challenges of smaller pools of maintenance disciplines, Sheuer said he relishes working with AMU Airmen to meet those challenges. He said he was especially proud of how his small team worked together during Cope North.
"It's a three-shift operation at home station," Sheuer said. "And when you have 12 people and you are the shift, you can rely on the other base, but it's your aircraft, it's your maintenance and to stick your chest out and say this is our maintenance, this is what we made happen -- that's pretty cool."