By Jeff Mullin, columnist
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
When pilots begin to taxi their aircraft from the ramp to the runway at Vance Air Force Base, the last face they see and the first they will see upon their return is that of a crew chief.
These civilians, employees of CSC Applied Technologies, are part mechanic and part traffic cop. They launch and recover aircraft, and perform spot maintenance.
And they do it all in the blazing heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter, with concrete underfoot and with few obstacles to block the relentless Oklahoma wind.
Crew chiefs inspect their aircraft both before they fly and after they return. They are looking for anything out of the ordinary — like worn tires, loose screws, cracks in the fuselage or canopy and leaking fluids.
“We typically don’t have any problems with the aircraft, but when we do, I’ll evaluate the situation and see if I can fix it,” said Anthony Thomas, T-6 mechanic. “If I can’t take care of the problem, we have a hangar we can send the aircraft to take care of the major problems. Whatever we can take of out there, we do.”
Crew chiefs meet the pilots at their aircraft and inspect it with them. They then assist them in getting into the airplane.
T-6 and T-38 crew chiefs use a series of hand signals to communicate with the pilots once they are inside their airplanes, while the T-1 affords crew chiefs the luxury of being able to communicate with air crews through a headset that plugs into the aircraft.
“We do our hand signals to them, get the engine started up and get them out of here,” said Thomas, who has spent just less than two years in his current job.
The tails of Vance’s T-6s, T-38s and T-1s are marked with different colors and numbers. Different crew chiefs handle planes of different colors. When one of their planes lands, they go back to work.
“We go stand in the spot (where the aircraft will park), we wave them down, they come around and we park them,” Thomas said.
After the previous crew exits the aircraft, the crew chief inspects it again, getting it ready for the next crew that will take it aloft.
All problems or fixes on any aircraft must be logged via computer to maintain a complete maintenance history on every plane.
At the end of the flying day the T-6 and T-38 crews inspect their aircraft and do a basic post-flight inspection, before putting them “to bed” for the night. The next morning, the planes will require a pre-flight inspection. Not so with the T-1s, whose crew chiefs perform combination pre-flight/BPOs.
At the end of the day, canopies are closed, engine openings are covered and any holes in the fuselage are plugged to keep dirt, debris and birds out of them. The planes then are chained down for the night.
Crew chiefs are responsible for keeping Vance’s planes coming and going safely and efficiently, as the base conducts some 210 sorties on an average day, which translates to approximately 50,000 per year.
The crew chiefs say they wouldn’t trade their jobs for one inside the hangar, but they admit the weather conditions on the Vance flight line often make their lives miserable.
“Dealing with the environment is the toughest part of the job,” said David Reese, T-38 mechanic who has spent 22 years on the Vance flight line.
“The concrete warms up, the plane’s engines are going, it gets pretty warm in the summertime,” said Thomas.
“In wintertimes it’s pretty brutal out there with straight winds down the flight line ramp,” said Chad Olsen, T-1 lead mechanic and a 15-year veteran.
There is the rain and the snow, the latter of which occasionally must be shoveled off the ramp. And when the snow melts off the canopy, then the water re-freezes at night, “It’s like an ice-skating rink out there,” Olsen said.
Thomas and Reese admit their T-1 counterparts have it tougher in bad weather, since the Jayhawks can fly in much worse weather than T-6s or T-38s.
“It will be blowing snow and they (T-1 crew chiefs) are out there,” said Reese, chuckling.
“We kind of look at them from inside our shack,” said Thomas.
The cold, they said, is as tough on the aircraft as it is on them.
“Things start leaking when it gets cold,” said Reese.
The best part of the job, Olsen said, is dealing with the pilots.
“I like meeting the people,” he said. “When the pilots come through, you meet new people every day.”
Life on the flight line, he said, is a learning experience.
“You never know what you’re going to find on an aircraft,” he said. “I’ve learned more being on the flight line.”
Thomas, a member of the U.S. Navy Reserve, has a unique perspective on his job.
“Training these guys out here, I get to experience, when I deploy, to see what I’ve trained,” he said.
The crew chiefs are proud of their role in training the next generation of military pilots at Vance.
“It’s exciting to know that you are training these men and women out here,” Olsen said. “They’re going to move on to bigger and better things, they’re going to move on to the real thing, eventually.”
The relationship between the pilots and crew chiefs is one of respect.
“They respect what we do, we respect what they do,” said Thomas.
That sentiment is echoed by the pilots they serve.
“They make our mission happen because they take pride in their work and they have a vested interest in helping these sorties get out the door,” said Capt. Duncan Catlett, instructor pilot with the 8th Flying Training Squadron. “Nothing happens without these fully mission-capable aircraft and that’s what they provide for us. It provides safety, it prevents mishap.
“It’s just nice to have a face out there that I recognize and I can trust, and I know the aircraft is going to be performing well for me. I never really have any worries about bringing the aircraft home.”
Catlett said the crew chiefs also help strengthen the relationship between Vance and Enid.
“They are all pure Enid people and I think that gives them a stronger sense of pride in what they do,” Catlett said. “They are here to stay. They have a very personal stake in that symbiotic relationship we have with the civilian community of Enid.”