Keeping ‘Eyes of the Eagle’ flying

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Stacy Fowler
  • 552 Air Control Wing
When the E-3 Sentry conducts its missions at home and around the world, every Airman in the 552nd Air Control Wing has their own part in guaranteeing the mission's success.
Many maintainers in the 552nd Maintenance Group have a motto: "Without maintenance, flyers are just pedestrians with cool leather jackets." But those same maintainers know the importance of working with the operational side of the Sentry - and ensure when hydraulic fluid is leaking or the air conditioning needs to be repaired, there are high-trained, fully-qualified Airmen ready to do the job. 

"The folks in the Maintenance Group are very dedicated to the mission," said Col. Keith Frede, 552nd MXG commander. "We have a very strict work schedule in the group, and I've talked with the shop supervisors about no overtime while the Airmen are at home station. We have to order people to go home because they're not leaving when the shift is over!" 

According to Colonel Frede, one great thing about being a maintainer is that they can see their results immediately - the aircraft flies or it doesn't. 

"There isn't any guessing after a job is done, it's either go or no-go," he said.
While at Tinker, the Maintenance Group supports six flying squadrons in the states, as well as two E-3 squadrons at Kadena Air Base, Japan, and Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska. Group personnel also deploy 365 days a year supporting operations such as NOBLE EAGLE, President of the United States (POTUS) missions at home and abroad, counter-drug missions in South America, and Operations IRAQI FREEDOM and ENDURING FREEDOM. 

The Maintenance Group is divided into three units that work together to ensure the success of the E-3 mission: The Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, the Maintenance Squadron and the Maintenance Operation Squadron. In many ways, the missions of these three squadrons overlap constantly - and for those who aren't in the maintenance career field, it can become a challenge trying to figure out who does what in the maintainer world...

'Working with a 30-year-old aircraft that doesn't cooperate'

Airmen in the 552nd AMXS frequently are the first to touch the aircraft in the morning, and the last to touch it at the end of a mission. 

In two aircraft maintenance units - Red and White - Airmen split the flying squadrons and are in charge of all the aircraft assigned to those units. This not only ensures the AMU Airmen are frequently on the move, but it also almost guarantees the flying crews will see familiar faces when the units deploy together around the world. 

"These Airmen do an amazing job," said Lt. Col. Darrell Steele, 552nd AMXS commander. "They're working with a 30-year-old aircraft that doesn't cooperate ... sometimes. There have been thousands of discrepancies with these airframes during the decades we've had them, and the AMXS folks have overcome every one." 

Dealing with aircraft discrepancies also includes deployments overseas for POTUS missions, counter-drug missions and OIF/OEF missions. And according to Colonel Steele, AMXS Airmen are possessive of their aircraft when they're away from home.
"We own those aircraft - they're ours and hopefully always will be," Colonel Steele said. "When those aircraft go TDY or deploy, there is a contingent of AMXS folks with them. At home or during a deployment, if there is an issue with the aircraft our folks will find it, fix it and get that aircraft airborne again."

'Wide range of artisans'

Working closely with the AMXS are Airmen in the MXS, who are in charge of the majority of off-aircraft work, and also specialize in computer, radar and overall maintenance of the aircraft. 

"Our unit is very diverse," said Lt. Col. James Mullin, 552nd MXS commander. "We have a wide range of artisans - one Airman can build very technical math models showing the inner workings of the computers they use on the E-3, and we have another Airman who can bend sheets of metal into any shape we want. Our Airmen all work together to help make sure that aircraft can do what is required of it." 

Airmen in the MXS flights work on a wide variety of items for the E-3: the Accessories Flight Airmen are in charge of ensuring all the aircraft-support equipment, such as air conditioners, refrigerators, generators, stairs and support vehicles, are working properly; two flights - Computers and Radar - ensure the systems used on the aircraft are working properly; the Maintenance Flight takes care of the annual isochronal inspections for all E-3s, as well as ensuring flight controls and other flight deck systems are operational; and the Fabrication Flight uses sheet metal to create needed items used for the E-3. 

"We have a very structured maintenance schedule going through many different types of equipment, which can be a challenge," said Airman 1st Class Josh Varner, Aerospace Ground Equipment (AGE) apprentice in the 552nd MXS. "What makes the process smooth is the supervision and the training we receive through our peers." 

Many sections have two areas that Airmen rotate through - the flightline and the backshop. Flightline Airmen are in charge of the overall maintenance work, and the backshop is where components are occasionally taken apart for a deeper look and any more complicated repairs. This not only keeps the Airmen from stagnating in one area, it also makes those Airmen better at their jobs through increasing their depth of knowledge and keeps the mission going. 

"We have highly-talented and well-trained Airmen in the MXS, and it's through close work relationships between Airmen, their supervisors and other shops in this unit that ensures mission success," Colonel Mullin said.

'Coat of many colors'

The third part of the Maintenance Group triad, the 552nd MOS, has a very unique mission that can be considered two-ply: supporting all Airmen in the Maintenance Group for daily staff operations, as well as acting as a final check on all maintenance done to the E-3. 

"We're a coat of many colors," said Maj. William Hoover, 552nd MOS commander. "Our Airmen are in charge of ensuring the group is on the right track for present and future missions. We make sure the AMXS and MXS can focus on their operations and not the day-to-day administrative issues." 

Those day-to-day issues can quickly bog down maintenance operations, especially when dealing with areas such as training, scheduling, security, mobility/readiness and supply functions. 

For example, while supervisors are responsible for ensuring their troops are fully trained for their jobs as maintainers, as well as any outside training such as M-16 or chem. warfare training, they don't have to worry about trying to figure out the "who, when, where and how" for those training and upgrade opportunities - the training flight keeps track of everything, and lets those supervisors know when training is needed. 

Besides scheduling, training and other day-to-day administrative duties, MOS Airmen also act as the "eyes and ears" tracking the health of the E-3 aircraft for the group commander through the Quality Assurance and Analysis flights. 

"QA physically looks at the maintainers' work after repairs are done, while the Analysis section crunches the overall numbers to see how the fleet is doing, and tracks and flags any negative trends," Major Hoover said. "They work together to make sure that our commander is aware of anything that really needs to be fixed." 

This also includes lessons learned from past missions, and what adjustments need to be made for future missions. After the E-3 returned from deployments in Southwest Asia, QA and Analysis completed studies from past SWA missions and noticed that several components had more issues while in a desert environment and had to be replaced more often. Using that information, they were able to "plus up" the maintenance supplies to combat those past issues. 

"We have a large variety of AFSCs (Air Force Specialty Codes) in the MOS that make sure that the Maintenance Group is on track and not worrying about the small things - that's why the MOS is here," Major Hoover said.

Unique capabilities

The overall mission of the Maintenance Group is to ensure the health of the E-3 fleet, as well as the abilities of the Airmen in the group. And all 552nd MXG Airmen overlap in various to ensure the mission gets done. 

"We have more than 1,500 people in the group, and every squadron has its own unique capabilities," Colonel Frede said. "There aren't any questions about who comes first or who is most important - we need every Airmen, civilian employee and contractor in the unit. They all make the mission a success." 

With the E-3 continually deploying to locations around the world for aerospace expeditionary force (AEF) taskings, last-minute POTUS missions and multi-national exercises, the Airmen of the 552nd MXG are kept busy making the mission successful.