August 22, 2014, SOUDA BAY, Greece (AFNS) – The F-16 Fighting Falcon is a unique airframe.
Its wingspan is wider than 32 feet, it’s nearly 50 feet long and its top is 16 feet high. It can travel at speeds of roughly 1,500 mph, and the aircraft engines create thrust — the force that moves the aircraft through the air — of about 27,000 pounds.
It takes thousands of pieces and moving parts to get one off the ground.
That’s where expert maintenance technicians come into play. The maintainers evaluate, test, check, sustain and replace the different parts to enable fighter pilots to do their job safely and securely.
And at a bilateral training exercise between the Hellenic and U.S. air forces at Souda Bay, Greece, Aug. 11-23, there is a centralized hub of equipment processing that provides the means to the maintainers.
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Coleman Haynes, a 52nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron support technician and native of Nevis, Minnesota, works at the equipment supply line and said that accountability is the key.
“We can’t make the mission happen if we’re missing tools,” he said. “The maintenance has to get done. It just has to, and we don’t want to create a chance for a maintainer to go out to a jet, find out he’s missing a tool and cut corners to fix the aircraft. That’s how people die.”
Haynes and his co-workers run an aggressive accountability program to prevent any mishaps. There are labels on each tool and tool kit. The labels include the last time the tool was inspected, any pertinent information about the tool and a file number. The file numbers are fed into a tool accountability system, or TAS, where the tool’s entire record is kept.
Each maintainer in the squadron has a designated number. When maintainers approach the supply line to request equipment, they provide their number to the support Airman. The tools are located, crosschecked in TAS and then assigned to that particular maintainer.
Once the maintainers are done with their work for the day, they return the equipment kits back to the supply line. The Airmen conduct another accountability check, and once everything is turned in, they clear the maintainer off of TAS.
The process sounds complicated, Haynes said, but they have created ways to make it as easy as possible. The different tool kits have a varying number of pieces inside — some as low as 20, some as high as 700. They’ve created the kits to have foam cutouts of the item or a black outline, so Airmen can check a kit at a glance to see if there is anything missing.
Missing items are a top concern, Haynes continued. It’s not just that the Air Force has to pay more money to replace the missing items, it’s the location of the missing items. For example, a crew chief’s tool kit has about 700 items inside. If a crew chief returns the kit with a missing socket, an immediate freeze is issued on the flightline. All jets preparing to take off are grounded, and all jets recently launched are called back to land.
“We don’t want to damage the jet or kill the pilot,” he said. “It’s a severe impact to the flying mission if we’re not accountable with our tools.”
The tool can be sucked into the air intake inlet of the aircraft, damaging the engine, or more seriously, if the item was abandoned inside the cockpit, it could rupture the canopy or become lodged in the ejection system — both potentially fatal.
“We’re all human; we all make mistakes,” Haynes said. “That’s why it’s essential we run a full inventory every shift to make sure all the tools are controlled.”
Haynes and his co-workers do more than just make sure the equipment is locked away. Frequently, they inspect the tools for any general wear and tear. The inspection part of their job also affects the flying mission.
“All the tools have a standard shelf life,” he explained. “And since we’re running maintenance all the time, the tools can get a little worn down. We’re constantly inspecting the tools for serviceability because we want each tool kit ready to go when it’s needed. If a maintainer needs a certain tool kit, but it’s due for inspection … that impacts the maintenance, and ultimately the operators.”
During the exercise, the maintainers are charged with providing the U.S. and Greek pilots as much time in the sky together as possible. With more than 20 jets launched per day, the maintainers have been busy making sure the pilots can focus solely on the building partnerships without being distracted by engine trouble.