Egress Airmen ensure 'last chance for life'

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jason J. Brown
  • 633d Air Base Wing Public Affairs
If something goes wrong in a fighter jet flying at 30,000 feet, the pilot needs a reliable way to escape danger, and fast.

When all else fails, the pilot relies on the ejection system to exit the jet and return safely to earth. Some say this system is the pilots' "last chance for life."

The 1st Component Maintenance Squadron egress technicians apply their expertise, attention to detail and dedication to the maintenance and proper employment of the Advanced Concept Ejection Seat II ejection systems in F-15 Eagles and F-22 Raptors.

The system includes the seat, fitted with gas and explosive lines in the F-15 and electrical circuitry in the F-22, which in the case of an ejection, will trigger the ejection process. A telescoping rocket catapult is affixed to the back of the seat, which propels the seat from the cockpit.

The team maintains the ACES II systems, worth more than $1 million per unit, on the 1st Fighter Wing's fleet of fighters, servicing seats, deployment mechanisms and ejection propulsion systems on a strict schedule. Egress technicians also service the cockpit canopy on the F-22 Raptor due to its integration into the ejection system.

"Each component of the system is dated, meaning it's only slated to be in working order for a prescribed amount of time," said Tech. Sgt. William Gamble Jr., the 1st CMS egress noncommissioned officer in charge. "These systems need to work 100 percent of the time, so we are constantly servicing them."

Each system undergoes an egress final inspection every 30 days, in which technicians physically inspect every component of the system they can touch. Every 36 months, each seat is disassembled and given comprehensive functional tests to ensure it operates if necessary.

The checklists are long, but critically important. The F-15 systems require a 55-step check prior to flight, and F-22s undergo a 103-step inspection, said Tech. Sgt. Michael Phillips, 1st CMS egress assistant NCOIC.

The team uses a two-man labor concept, called demand-response, to maintain safety and effectiveness due to the use of explosives and the importance of properly servicing the systems.

"There are eyes on the system the entire time," Sergeant Gamble said.  "One technician will dictate the instruction, and the other will verbally confirm before accomplishing it. Afterwards, a five-level tech inspects the work, followed by a final approval by a seven-level supervisor."

Unlike other maintenance shops that include a flightline crew and a "backshop" team, the egress team works from workbench to fighter, serving as the only team that can work on the ejection system. In addition, because proper maintenance is so vital and complex, only egress technicians can "red x," or sign off for the ejection systems during egress maintenance.

The technicians, including members of the Virginia Air National Guard's 192nd Fighter Wing, devote one morning a week to hands-on and video training sessions and also instruct an annual refresher course.

"The work is challenging," said Airman 1st Class William Stanton, a 1st CMS egress apprentice. "There's so much attention to detail with the systems. We can't afford to make mistakes; we are responsible for saving pilots' lives."

While ejections are rare, pilots appreciate the egress teams' dedication in making sure they get back to earth safely in a worst-case scenario.

"We don't get to see the reward of the work often, and that's a good thing," said Staff Sgt. Michael Oswalt, a 1st CMS egress technician.