Airman Ayala works underneath a B-1B. In addition to launching and recovering their aircraft, performing inspections and occasionally changing tires and cleaning windows, crew chiefs are responsible for scheduling specialists, or maintainers with special knowledge of specific systems, to work on their aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Tim Jenkins)
by Staff Sgt. Tim Jenkins
379th Air Expeditionary Wing public affairs
10/15/2010 - SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Turbofan afterburning engines, variable-geometry wings, long range maneuverability and high speed -- in the air, the B-1B Lancer demonstrates impressive capabilities, able to rapidly deliver large numbers of precision and non-precision weapons against adversaries anywhere, any time.
Back on the ground, impressive capabilities are also displayed in the dedicated crew chiefs of the 379th Air Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron 9th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Unit, who maintain the jets, monitor the scheduled maintenance and keep the backbone of America's long-range bomber force in the air.
"Our main responsibility is to maintain the B-1B and to provide a safe and reliable aircraft to the aircrew operators to send them downrange to protect the ground troops," said Master Sgt. Michael Cannon, 9th EAMU. "The crew chiefs are pretty much the bread and butter. If I don't have a good crew chief on a jet, the maintenance doesn't flow that well."
Maintaining that flow is a constant effort by the team of crew chiefs, who, along with all other members of the 9th EAMU, are deployed here from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. They work using a dedicated crew chief program, where they are assigned to the same aircraft day in and day out, meaning they know the ins-and-outs of their aircraft better than anyone else.
"We always try to pick the most qualified person," said Sergeant Cannon. "As long as they stay with that aircraft day to day, and don't get moved around too much, they know everything about it. You can go up to any one of them and ask them about the history of their jet and they'll be able to rattle it off."
Having an intimate knowledge of the aircraft's history is essential to accomplishing their mission. In addition to launching and recovering them, performing inspections and occasionally changing tires and cleaning windows, the crew chiefs are responsible for scheduling specialists, or maintainers with special knowledge of specific systems, to work on their aircraft. Knowing the history allows the crew chiefs to determine which specialty work is required and when it needs to be completed.
"We usually let the crew chiefs pretty much dictate the order of what they want done on the jets, just because they're the one working the jet all time," said Sergeant Cannon.
Senior Airman Michelle Gay is a B-1B crew chief with the 9th EAMU. She said when an aircraft returns from a flight with maintenance issues, the crew chiefs begin scheduling the work needed to make sure the fixes are made.
"As a crew chief, we're in charge of the jet," said Airman Gay, who has been a crew chief more than two years. "We run it - we run the show. We keep track of our forms and when we have something that needs fixed (by a specialist) so we can get our jet in the air, we stay on them to get the work done. We also support them with engine runs or any support they need to get their jobs done."
Working in a deployed environment is not without its challenges, particularly with an airframe unaccustomed to operating in extreme temperatures.
"I'd say the biggest challenge is not only the people adjusting to the heat, but also adjusting the aircraft to the heat," said Sergeant Cannon. "Our jets are real animals for wanting cool air. We've got to figure out what's causing all the cooling issues, and then we've got to fix it. Sometimes it can be a two-hour job, sometimes up to a two-day job."
The B-1B is cooled with fuel, cooling fluid, like antifreeze in a car which is cooled by the fuel, and also oil and air cooling. If the fuel gets hot, the cooling fluid gets hot and the air can't cool it down enough. At that point, everything else could begin failing.
"If any one of those fails, the pyramid falls," said Sergeant Cannon. "It's a very angry jet when it comes to requiring cooling air and cooling all together. Flying in 90 degree temps back home or even 80 degree temps, you don't really notice the cooling problems. Then you come over here in 110-112 degree heat, you start noticing the aircraft pretty much sits on the ramp and says it doesn't want to go."
Heat issues associated with operating a B-1B in a desert environment, mixed with the high operations tempo and 12-hour sorties, mean challenging days for the crew chiefs, and more wear and tear on aircraft.
"We come with less jets, and more people for aircraft, so work wise, there's a little more work involved because they break more because of the heat issues," said Sergeant Cannon.
Crew chiefs typically spend their entire shift on the ramp, tending to their jet and ensuring its required maintenance remains on schedule. This round-the-clock attention is vital as the B-1Bs are continuously engaged in operations.
"These are the only aircraft we have here," said Sergeant Cannon. "So if anything goes wrong ... prior to launch, we've really got to hustle to fix it."
Sergeant Cannon added at home units if a B-1B breaks, the crew can just step to another. The sense of urgency or the need to get the aircraft fixed isn't quite there. But here, they've only have so many available.
For Airman Gay, the challenges involved with working with the B-1B are what she likes most about her job as a crew chief.
"It's a challenging aircraft and I think that's what makes it more fun," said Airman Gay. "Plus, I like seeing it fly and I like what it does in the air."
She added that working in a deployed environment has given her the perspective of seeing the fruits of her labor -- directly contributing to the fight.
"Back home I really didn't see it that way, but now that I'm here in a deployed location, I get really excited," she said.
According to Master Sgt. Rafael Pena-Perez, 7th EAMU crew chief NCOIC, the importance of the B-1Bs presence here is always in the forefront of the minds of the members of the 9th EAMU, as well as their role in making certain the B-1B fleet is capable of fulfilling its purpose.
"If they miss a training mission at home, then the crew doesn't get their flight hours," said Sergeant Pena-Perez. "But if we miss an ATO here, there could be troops on the ground that aren't getting top cover or don't have the security of knowing there are people upstairs that can bring the heat if the heat is required."
Sergeant Cannon added despite the challenges inherent with working in a deployed environment, the crew chiefs are doing a great job getting their mission done.
"All-in-all I think they're doing an outstanding job," said Sergeant Cannon. "Yes, it does get stressful at times and our guys know that and will bend over backwards to get the job done. No matter what, they're keeping a good attitude about the job they're doing."