Maintainers unPhased under pressure

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Shawn McCowan
  • 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Hiding on a corner of the flight line, a team of maintainers rolls one A-10 Thunderbolt II after another through their makeshift hangar; an oversized tent. Their workload is both intense and intensely important. They complete their deployed tasks in a fraction of the time allotted in training, while adhering to the strictest of standards.

Without them, the Air Force would have to replace its entire flying inventory every couple of years.

The phase inspection team assigned to the 455th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron can disassemble, inspect, and reassemble most components of an A-10 faster than most auto repair companies can replace a transmission. Their efficiency requires an ideal combination of management, skilled technicians, and a strong sense of teamwork. The Bagram phase team has all three.

Master Sgt. Gary Childers manages workflow for the entire phase process with his team, most of which deployed with the 188th Fighter Wing's Flying Razorbacks, at Ebing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith, Ark. The pase team consists of about 40 Airmen from 12 work centers in two squadrons. That means each team member has to be familiar with many systems on the aircraft.

"Phase" covers 300 separate inspection points, or nearly every inch of the aircraft. Because of the critical and intrusive nature of phase inspections, their work is 100 percent inspectable. This work requires extraordinary thoroughness.

It normally takes teams of eight Airmen as long as 30 days to complete a Phase inspection on an A-10. But during operations, the war can't wait. So the same team works 24 hours per day in 12-hour shifts. Their non-stop effort has a huge impact on the inspection's completion time.

The same month-long process is completed in as little as four days.

Once an aircraft is due for its phase inspection, it is rolled into their inspection hangar. Then the A-10 phase team begins the first day by pulling the aircraft apart, panel by panel, from every direction. Days two and three are spent performing inspections, repairs, and reassembly and operational checks to ensure each part functions properly. By day four, the aircraft gets a final once-over, and is rolled back out to the flight line for its next mission.

The high day-to-day operations tempo can be just as hard on aircraft as it is on people. Aircraft like the A-10 are sent to phase inspection after every 500 flying hours. That number comes around about every two years at a stateside Air National Guard unit. In Afghanistan, the aircraft reach 500 hours nearly every three months, said Childers.

One of the major benefits of the increased workload is the experience the team gains. Childers estimated they get a year's worth of training every month. But the experience they brought to the fight  prior to arriving is necessary to make it all happen, said Childers.

"At least half of my team have been out of technical school for two years or less."

But Childers says the work pays off when the aircraft rolls out.

"You get a sense of pride when you get the plane together, they load it up with bombs, and you know what it's going out to accomplish. You see what your work is accomplishing. At home the mission is training. Out here it's real."

One member of the phase team, with a bit more experience than the others, is Staff Sgt. Dustin Ponder. Prior to his current assignment, he had already worked on A-10s and the C-17 Globemaster III. Ponder says he is impressed with the team's professionalism.

"Everyone knows what they're doing," he said. "We get a game plan, and everyone gets a zone to work on. And we're here 24/7, so we can get it done fast."

Ponder paused while removing an air conditioner vent to "tip his wrench" to his co-workers.

"I've been with a couple of units," Pender said. "I worked on A-10s before this in Germany. Everything here goes on as a team unit. And this is, bar-none, the best as far as camaraderie. Everyone gets along probably the best I've ever seen. But we still get things done fast."

Capt. Jason Woodruff, 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance operations officer, paid a visit to the phase hangar during an inspection. The Smethport, Pa., native, is assigned to an F-22 unit at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. But he was not shy about his respect for his current unit's phase team.

"When they pull the jet into this hangar, these guys are on it," Woodruff said. "There are 20 guys working on this jet at any one time. They're all tearing into it, they like their job, and they know the benefit of getting that jet out onto the line to fly. These guys are doing an awesome job turning these jets, to get them back into the air to fight the mission."

The hot sun over Afghanistan crawled from one side of the hangar to the other while the men work. By the next time they see the sun, their current aircraft would likely be getting ready to depart for its next mission.