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Under pressure: Crew chiefs take mission in stride



SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

Tools clang and the clock ticks as time narrows, several pairs of grease-stained boots can be seen darting back and forth beneath a lifeless fighter jet as Airmen work relentlessly to repair their bird for flight.

Though the pressure appears prevalent, the Airmen seem to embrace it with a bit of levity while slaying the task at hand.

This is a crew chief's realm, a place where the rubber literally meets the road, and "almost" doesn't count. The daily grind is real and words like responsibility and ownership carry weight.

If crew chiefs don't get it right, jets could crash, pilots could die and the mission could fail.

That's the reality of being fighter jet mechanic. "I don't know what it is ... crew chiefs just seem like different people," said Staff Sgt. Shane Myers, a 20th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief. "I don't know if we're raised into it or what, but it's a good group of (Airmen). We always have fun."

Each aircraft assigned to the 20th Fighter Wing has a dedicated crew chief. Those Airmen have a multitude of responsibilities as tactical aircraft maintainers.

While some people find it challenging to maintain their personal automobile, it paints the picture of how tough it can be to keep a multi-million dollar fighter jet, like the F-16CM Fighting Falcon, mechanically sound and combat ready -- this is where crew chiefs step in.

Each crew chief is assigned, or in this case dedicated, to a single fighter jet. The Airman then has his or her name put on the aircraft along with the officer's name who pilots the plane.

"Pride and ownership are the big reasons we have our names on the aircraft," said Staff Sgt. Stephen Leonardi, a 20th AMXS crew chief. "When you see your name on a jet, you know it's your airplane and everyone sees that, so the aircraft is a direct reflection of you."

A crew chief can't really come into work expecting what to do each day, Leonardi said.

"Every day is different," he added. "These jets have personality, sometimes they break, other times they fly great, but I'd say in most crew chief's opinion, you just have to come in with an open mind and hope for the best but prepare for the worst."

That unpredictability could be seen when crew chiefs worked against the clock to repair a jet that has a wrench thrown into its launch schedule that evening.

The crew chief assigned to the jet communicated with the pilot in the cockpit via radio headset; the words "red ball" came across the radio waves like a brick landing at his feet.

A red ball is any maintenance issue that comes up prior to an aircraft launch or during flight. If the issue that caused the jet to red ball is not resolved quickly and accurately, the mission could suffer since the pilot would not have an operational aircraft to carry out his tasks.

Radio transmissions squawked as the crew chief notified the pilot of the issues happening beneath the temporally disabled fighting falcon.

 "Sir, it looks like we are going to have to pin it back up," Senior Airman Perry Clark, a 20th AMXS crew chief, said to the captain in the cockpit.

 "What's the matter?" the officer asked in response. Clark went on to explain a problem with a portion of the jet's hydraulic system that caused the jet to fall mercy to those two words -- red ball -- leaving the bird and its pilot in a grounded status.

During that time several crew chiefs swarm the inoperable war plane, acting with a sense of purpose as they know they have a very slim window of time to get the problem repaired or the mission may be scrubbed.

As they battle the clock frustration ensues, the lead crew chief shakes his head as he expresses frustration with issues under the jet.

Though they are rushing, the crew chiefs understand that there is zero room for error.

Just as it seemed like the mechanical issue was going to get the best of them, the radio squealed back to life. Clark began to express to the captain that the problem had been fixed.

Without hesitation, the pilot rolled right back into his pre-flight routine.

"The pilot relies on us so much because they have other thoughts on their mind," Leonardi said. "They don't need to worry about the aircraft and what the engine is doing, etc. They just need to focus on putting bombs on target. They rely on us to put a safe aircraft in the air, and we do."

Moments later the orange glow of marshaling sticks waved through the air. The other crew chiefs stood back as Clark marshaled the repaired F-16 from its parking spot. As the pilot taxied past, Clark rendered a salute along with a half-smile.

Shortly after, the jet raced down the runway and quickly lifted into the air, disappearing into the darkness of night.

The swift decision making and heightened pressure may seem uncommon, but for these Airmen, it's just another night in a crew chief's boots.

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