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Undermanned but not overwhelmed: AGE maintainers meet mission requirements

Airman 1st Class Tyler Graham sands the stickers of a 10 ton jack in preparation to be painted June 18, 2014, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. The 423nd Maintenance Squadron aerospace ground equipment crew is responsible for more than 761 pieces of equipment for the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper remotely-piloted aircraft, both on home-station and at deployed locations. Graham is a 423rd MXS AGE mechanic. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christian Clausen)

Airman 1st Class Tyler Graham sands the stickers of a 10 ton jack in preparation to be painted June 18, 2014, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. The 423nd Maintenance Squadron aerospace ground equipment crew is responsible for more than 761 pieces of equipment for the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper remotely-piloted aircraft, both on home-station and at deployed locations. Graham is a 423rd MXS AGE mechanic. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christian Clausen)

Senior Airmen David Carr inspects the motor of a generator used for powering ground control stations June 17, 2014, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. The 423nd Maintenance Squadron aerospace ground equipment crew is responsible for more than 761 pieces of equipment for the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper remotely-piloted aircraft, both on home-station and at deployed locations. Carr is a 423rd MXS AGE technician. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christian Clausen)

Senior Airmen David Carr inspects the motor of a generator used for powering ground control stations June 17, 2014, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. The 423nd Maintenance Squadron aerospace ground equipment crew is responsible for more than 761 pieces of equipment for the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper remotely-piloted aircraft, both on home-station and at deployed locations. Carr is a 423rd MXS AGE technician. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christian Clausen)

CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFNS) -- Doing more with less is something that the Airmen of the 432nd Maintenance Squadron aerospace ground equipment have mastered. The growth of responsibilities, however, has been no match for the short-staffed crew.

The AGE shop should have nearly 40 people, but within the last three months the already undermanned unit has lost seven people, primarily due to separations. Now, 20 individuals are responsible for more than 761 pieces of MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper remotely-piloted aircraft equipment for both home station and deployed commitments.

"We've considered the possibility of manning assists from other organizations, but ultimately, have simply adapted to the requirements," said Capt. Robert Dunphy, a 432nd MXS AGE maintenance operations officer. "We cannot simply stop working. Our AGE personnel have done a phenomenal job turning in excess equipment, accepting new equipment to prepare for deployed operations, and ensure AGE is readily available to support local operations."

Despite the challenges that come with being undermanned, the AGE maintainers have a number of accomplishments to be proud of, including sustaining an above average passing rate on inspection.

"We have a quality assurance program with more than 100 inspections performed on us in a month, and we maintain over a 90 percent passing rate," said Tech. Sgt. Clinton Rhodes, a 432nd MXS AGE craftsman. "It shows the dedication that our Airmen and our NCOs have toward getting the job done and doing it right no matter what."

Since April 2013 the AGE members have also turned 266 equipment assets back into the supply system through the excess equipment turn-in plan. This alone resulted in $2.3 million returned to the Air Force inventory and also saved the shop 1,600 man hours.

"When the excess equipment turn-in plan was initially presented, it seemed like a pretty daunting task," said Senior Master Sgt. Valerie Schenk, the 432nd MXS AGE maintenance flight chief. "We needed to turn in quite a bit of equipment and while that sounds easy; this was no small feat, especially for an undermanned shop. But the people in AGE just nodded and said, 'Let's get started,' and they got it done."

Schenk is confident their accomplishments would not have been possible without the AGE personnel maintaining positive attitudes, hard work, camaraderie and trusting in leadership.

"The senior airmen have stepped a lot to help train the new members," said Tech. Sgt. John Brownell, the 432nd MXS AGE section chief. "Everybody's assumed the responsibilities of the next higher rank. Even the brand new guys have hit the ground running helping with retirements and other tasks."

Having such a small shop has made a positive impact on the AGE maintainers, and helped build strong camaraderie within the unit.

"It's like a small community," Rhoades said. "We try to keep morale up any way we can and kill any negative vibe as soon as we hear it."

Dunphy said he owes the high morale within the AGE shop to the excellent flight leadership.

"Tech Sgt. Brownell and those who led before him have kept a light and lively environment in AGE," Dunphy said. "It is always great when you go into the shop and see Airmen at work, but it's even better when they have a smile on their face."

During duty hours the AGE maintainers keep a light-hearted atmosphere, joking with each other or playing music in the shop, while still completing the mission and maintaining professionalism and respect. On the weekends, the shop will occasionally get together for fun outside of work.

"The Airmen work hard and play hard," Schenk said. "Last year, they all pitched in and bought themselves a basketball hoop. During break times they usually go out and play to relieve some stress while having a good time. That's just one of the things they've done to improve morale and relationships within the team."

The camaraderie between the maintainers has proven crucial to completing the mission and helping the Airmen manage the extra responsibilities. They do more than just manage responsibilities, they also enjoy the challenge.

"I can feel the amount of extra responsibility that is given to us," said Airman 1st Class Marcos Sandoval, a 432nd MXS AGE apprentice. "We have to take in more information in a shorter amount of time, but I like the challenge and I appreciate that I'm getting that early in my career."

It's the positivity within the crew that has made a difference in spite of all the challenges, and that has made Airmen of every rank become more experienced and skilled at their trade.

"We're kind of making gold out of straw," said Senior Airman David Carr, a 432nd MXS AGE technician. "We've always been undermanned since I've been here, but it's molded us into more complete maintainers."

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