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Generating airpower with hydraulics

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Derek VanHorn
  • 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
When a recruiter approached Rodney Shepherd a few years ago, he was working at a local steak joint outside Oklahoma City. He usually worked the front register but would find his way to the back to help out with dishes when things got busy; it was the dirtiest task, and admittedly, his least favorite part of the job.

The recruiter's pitch worked and almost five years later, Shepherd's changed his stance -- he can't wait to get his hands dirty.

"Most people in the shop don't like working on brakes," said Shepherd, a senior airman with the 35th Maintenance Squadron. "It's the dirtiest job, but personally, it's my favorite."

Shepherd works in the hydraulic systems back shop -- often called "hydro" -- where he and a team of five maintain hydraulic systems associated with Misawa Air Base’s fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons. Their main jobs usually include landing gear systems, brakes and flight controls.

In the past, Shepherd said he'd gawk at the proposition of getting down to the literal nuts and bolts of a problem. Now, it's just business as usual.

"I never was the most mechanically inclined person," Shepherd said with laugh. "But, this job has given me skills I never knew I had. Now if I have something like a car issue, it's nothing for me to hop online and watch a video and then go fix it myself. I wouldn't go back and trade this job for anything."

Car maintenance probably pales in comparison to maintaining F-16s, but Shepherd said he's fortunate to be able to support some of the world's most powerful machines. He's not the only one.

"I would say hydraulics -- next to propulsion -- is the most important aspect of the F-16," said Staff Sgt. Brian Argenti, a 35th MXS hydraulics systems craftsman. "Once (pilots) are in the air, how are they going to control the jet and land without hydraulics?"

The answer is obvious -- they're not; and Argenti and his team of five take pride in their unique role.

Rather than having specialists out on the flightline with hands on the jets, they work as back shop experts who only work on parts that are sent their way by crew chiefs. A computer system will code a part for maintenance, and after being delivered, the hydro team dissects each part with extreme detail. Equipped with safety goggles, grease-covered gloves, technical orders and a slew of tools, each job is performed like clockwork. Few words are said; the team is so familiar with each other that each step movement almost seems scripted.

"We overhaul, clean, service and test parts to make sure they're working as advertised," said Argenti, who's spent 10 years working on flightlines around the Air Force. "We'll break them down to their beginning and build them all the way back up."

Misawa is the first base Argenti's worked in a back shop, and it's offered a revamped appreciation for the work.

"It's a new environment where everything comes to us disembodied. Just seeing the insides of things and how they work -- getting to the guts of the jet without actually working on it -- is a fun challenge," Argenti said. "It gives you appreciation for how things work when you're critically thinking how to best repair certain parts."

The parts are then vetted through a series of steps for approval before returning to the aircraft parts store, where they're certified for not only Misawa's jets, but F-16s across the globe.

"It feels good knowing we're putting the best available parts out there for the entire fleet," Argenti said.

Last year alone, Misawa's hydro shop overhauled over 50 brake systems and 30 landing gear sets, making them as good as new for any F-16. While their approach is calm and methodical, they know their impact is a bit more colorful.

"Hydraulics are pretty much the lifeblood of the F-16 system," Shepherd said. "Without our parts working properly, pilots could literally fall out of the sky."

There's a cool, comfortable feel across their shop -- a strong presence of confidence and awareness.

"It's not like we're out here calling ourselves the most important shop on the flightline," Shepherd said. "But we know we're as valuable as any part that makes up the maintenance team. I've been fortunate enough to be placed in a good shop and I'm proud to be a part of the F-16 mission."