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Airmen wear many hats, support NATO mission in Germany

A 168th Air Refueling Wing KC-135 Stratotanker is pushed backward by a tow truck prior to takeoff Sept. 30, 2014, at Geilenkirchen NATO Air Base, Germany. The aircraft carries 125,000 lbs. of fuel and will offload 30,000 to 35,000 lbs. to receiving Boeing E-3A AWACS. (U.S. Air National Guard photo/Senior Airman Francine St. Laurent)

A 168th Air Refueling Wing KC-135 Stratotanker is pushed backward by a tow truck prior to takeoff Sept. 30, 2014, at Geilenkirchen NATO Air Base, Germany. The aircraft carries 125,000 lbs. of fuel and will offload 30,000 to 35,000 lbs. to receiving Boeing E-3A AWACS. (U.S. Air National Guard photo/Senior Airman Francine St. Laurent)

GEILENKIRCHEN NATO AIR BASE, Germany (AFNS) -- Airmen from Alaska Air National Guard’s 168th Air Refueling Wing began a two-week support mission here, supporting NATO’s airborne warning and control system mission.

The 168th ARW is one of 18 ANG units that support the 17 E-3A AWACS aircraft and their radar surveillance missions by providing refueling capabilities.

Maintenance Airmen play a key role by ensuring Alaska ANG’s two KC-135 Stratotankers in Germany are kept in the best possible condition.

“Our system knowledge is used not only to fix problems when they happen, but to diagnose and prevent future problems from happening,” said Airman 1st Class Deren Trounce, a 168th Maintenance Squadron hydraulics technician.

As the only hydraulics specialist on a team of 19 Airmen who traveled to Geilenkirchen, Trounce said he gained experience and confidence in his skill set.

“Back home I have a support net,” Trounce said. “My mentors guide me through fixing a problem. Here it’s basically me; I am the hydraulic specialist.”

With the help of Staff Sgt. Shawn McCarthy, a 168th Maintenance Group aircraft electrical and environmental technician, Trounce fixed a fuel line leak in the wheel well and bled the system of air pockets.

Working closely with Airmen from career fields ranging from avionics communication and navigation to crew chiefs and propulsion helped Trounce appreciate their knowledge and become better at his job, he said.

“This trip not only reinforces the knowledge I already have but helps me extend what I know,” Trounce said.

This growth echoes among the 168th ARW Airmen supporting the AWACS’ mission. Airmen build on their knowledge and experience, which benefits the 168th ARW teamwork at home, said Chief Master Sgt. Mark Renson, the 168th MXS component maintenance flight superintendent.

“When they’re back home, all these shops are segregated, and they perform their own duties,” Renson said. “When they get here, we integrate them into each other’s jobs so they are helping each other. There’s not enough of each one to do their job by themselves so they all have to pitch in.”

Many of the specialists wear two hats, helping crew chiefs launch and recover aircraft, Renson said. Prior to the trip, Airmen spend a day learning to refuel the aircraft, add oil to the engines, install a tail stand and additional pre and post-flight procedures.

Airmen gain experience with different skills when their specialty is not yet needed, Renson said.

“For example, if you don’t have any engine write-ups, you can have them do crew chief launches,” Renson said. “When there’s no electrical and environmental work, we’ll have them help propulsion when they’re hurting.”

In many ways, the trip is a unique training opportunity for many Airmen, such as Staff Sgt. Mike Meyers, a 168th MXS Fabrication Shop aircraft structural mechanic.

“Bird strikes don’t happen very often at Eielson (AFB),” Meyers said. “It happens sometimes, but not very often. Now here, there’s a very high possibility that it’s going to happen because of the number of birds on the runway.”

If a bird were to hit a KC-135 during takeoff or landing, varying degrees of damage could occur.

Meyers, as the only sheet metal specialist, would fix any dents or cracks on parts that must be replaced or repaired.

“We brought little pieces of metal and all the basic tools to fix it, such as a drill, rivet gun and measuring equipment to measure distances between holes and make a rivet pattern,” Meyers said.

Each specialty brought tools, parts and repair equipment because supplies can’t be acquired. The success of the 168th ARW refueling mission at Geilenkirchen depends on the teamwork of Airmen and the culture of melding and sharing knowledge they create.

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