by Staff Sgt. Danielle Wolf
442nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
12/27/2010 - NAVAL AIR STATION KEY WEST, Fla. -- Approximately two years ago life support and survival equipment technicians combined forces to create the aircrew flight equipment shop, part of the 442nd Operations Group.
AFE technicians are now responsible for every piece of life-saving equipment pilots use during missions.
"Thanks to the merger of the two (shops,) we now have our hands on every piece of equipment that protects and aids a pilot's survivability in the event of an emergency in flight or an ejection in combat," said Master Sgt. Phil Youngblood, AFE technician and NCOIC of training.
The crew is responsible for inspecting and maintaining more than 13 pieces of survival equipment - most of which contain dozens of components. With the merging of the career fields, AFE technicians are also now responsible for sewing and repairing pilots' flight gear.
All survival training pilots are required to complete is conducted by the AFE crew, including the water-survival training the A-10 Thunderbolt II pilots of the 303rd Fighter Squadron received Nov. 5 in Key West, Fla.
"Training in an environment like that is more realistic - in fact, that's as real as it gets," said Senior Master Sgt. Joe O'Daniel, AFE superintendent. "Our crew was also able to learn by observing those who are instructor-qualified and assisting with the water-survival training."
At the same time, the AFE crew was able to conduct a mass water-survival training, which is required every three years, for all 303rd FS pilots in one day.
"It's important to make sure the equipment is well-maintained and that pilots are trained, because if needed, it will mean that the pilot's life is in danger due to an in-flight emergency or an ejection," Sergeant Youngblood said. "If this occurs over a combat zone or in hostile territory, then pilots will have to recall and put to use their survival skills."
Col. David Closen, 442nd Operations Group commander, participated in the water-survival training in Key West.
"It's important that we come out here and do this training so we feel confident our equipment works and we know how to use it," he said.
Normally, Colonel Closen said, a helicopter would drop pilots off in the ocean and they would be required to use their water-survival equipment for several hours before "rescue" was available. Due to high winds, resources did not allow for the use of helicopters Nov. 5. Instead, pilots used a bay located at the marina at Sigsbee Park, Naval Air Station Key West.
"It's beneficial for us to train in salt water, rather than a lake or a pool, because it is more realistic with its buoyancy," said Lt. Col. Brian Borgen, 303rd Fighter Squadron commander. "It's good to make our training as realistic as possible so we're prepared. Our (AFE crew) is well-equipped and fully prepared for our training - I think our (AFE technicians) are some of the best in the world."
The AFE crew began the training by ensuring pilots were suited up as they would be if they had to emergency-eject from an aircraft - wearing the nearly-35-pound torso harness with life-preserver unit and helmet.
After inflating the LPU and jumping in the saltwater bay, they swam to Tech. Sgt. Michael Fair, AFE technician, who met them at individual life rafts 50 feet from the dock. He explained information about the LPUs, including inflation, deflation and temporary maintenance, then instructed them to board the individual life rafts. Once they boarded, Sergeant Fair taught the pilots how to use the rafts to prevent hypothermia and how to roll off the rafts, when necessary. He also instructed them to deflate one side of the LPU for better mobility when stranded on the individual life raft for a long period of time.
At the next station, a swim of about 350 feet, Master Sgt. Phil Youngblood, AFE technician and noncommissioned officer of training, instructed pilots how to board the 10-man life raft. He explained how to maintain proper inflation in the raft, how to inspect it and repair air leaks, how to maintain cover in unfriendly waters and how to signal rescue aircraft. He also taught pilots how to inspect themselves for sharp objects before boarding the raft so as not to damage their best means for survival.
"Our old motto used to be 'Your life is our business,'" Sergeant O'Daniel said. "Just like every crew chief is responsible for making sure the pilot has a good airplane, we're responsible for making sure every pilot has good equipment."
Water-survival training is only one of the many required certifications pilots must refresh annually. Sergeant Youngblood said AFE also conducts egress training, hanging-harness training and Advanced Concept Ejection Seat (ACES II) training.
Egress training allows pilots to sit in a replicated flight deck and actually practice pulling ejection handles.
"It's important that they actually pull the handles, because ejection procedures vary in different aircraft," Sergeant Youngblood said. "We also have to make sure they maintain the proper position when ejecting so as not to injure themselves in the process."
Sergeant Youngblood said, to his knowledge, no 303rd FS pilots have had to eject in flight. However, many of them have had to manually raise the A-10 canopy for other emergencies, he said.
"When we give the pilots egress training, we create scenarios such as bird strikes or canopy-light malfunctions so (the pilots) have to practice using their checklists and lifting the canopy."
Although the new c-model brought the A-10 into the digital age, Sergeant Youngblood said pilots need to know which altitude display to reference in order to safely escape the airplane - and this egress training teaches that.
Hanging-harness training teaches the pilots how to fix parachute malfunctions. Using a virtual simulator with five different malfunction scenarios and 15 target locations, the pilots can eject and begin their drop from 3,100 feet. Although A-10 pilots wouldn't normally eject at this altitude, Sergeant Youngblood said the simulated height gives them nearly 1,600 feet more of training.
Pilots are harnessed a few feet above the ground and have a virtual simulator attached to their helmet. This 360-degree simulator adjusts based on which direction they are looking and allows them to aim toward a particular target, accounting for wind direction and speed. They are then rated based on their accuracy and precision.
The ACES II kit is a survival package that is packed underneath the seat. In the event of an ejection, the kit is attached to and deploys with the pilot. The kit has dozens of items, all of which can be used to survive in any environment for several days.
AFE technicians must inspect the equipment in the ACES II kit annually to verify there is no damage and that equipment has not expired.
"The ACES II (kit) was developed by trial-and-error method," Sergeant Fair said. "When Scott O'Grady ejected, he gave a lot of feedback as to what should be included in the kit to make it the most effective."
The AFE crew is also responsible for maintaining and inspecting the night-vision goggles used weekly by the pilots during night sorties as well as the pilots' chemical warfare equipment. Although, by Air Force instruction, the shop only requires a 10 percent quality assurance check, the 442nd AFE crew has chosen to inspect 100 percent of its product.
Sergeant O'Daniel said that when the two career fields merged, the 100-percent QA check was effective in ensuring everyone was trained adequately while maintaining the security of fail-proof equipment.
"Now we have four eyes on everything we produce instead of two," he said. "Everything gets inspected by the person who fixed the item, as well as our quality assurer. These pilots rely on us daily to make sure they are safe in flight - and we take our jobs very seriously."
"Inspecting and maintaining things doesn't seem like a very important job until the equipment is needed - and then you want to ensure it's correct," Sergeant O'Daniel said.
Master Sgt. Phil Youngblood, life-support technician, instructs pilots how to reinflate a 20-man life raft in the event of an emergency. Sergeant Youngblood participated in water-survival training in Key West, Fla., Nov. 5. He is part of the 442nd Operations Group, which is part of the 442nd Fighter Wing, an Air Force Reserve unit at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Danielle Wolf)
Maj. Bryan Stone and Maj. Aaron Linderman, A-10 Thunderbolt II pilots with the 303rd Fighter Squadron, learn how to board their individual life rafts during water-survival training in Key West, Fla., Nov. 5. The 303rd FS is part of the 442nd Fighter Wing, an Air Force Reserve unit at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Danielle Wolf)