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MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — When Capt. Kris Padilla pulls G-forces over the frigid Sea of Japan, he doesn’t fret about his parachute harness or whether his anti-exposure suit is up to task.

Backing Padilla and the other pilots of Misawa’s 35th Fighter Wing is a life support team that the Air Force considers the best in the business.

The 35th Fighter Wing Life Support Section has earned the title of the Air Force’s 2003 Outstanding Aircrew Life Support Small Program of the Year.

The service finally noticed Misawa’s 19 life support airmen after the unit was named best in Pacific Air Forces three years running, beating out every base excluding Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, the only PACAF base without a life support program, officials said.

“Basically, everything we do revolves around making sure the pilot can fly and fight safely,” said Master Sgt. William Ryan, 35th Fighter Wing Life Support superintendent. “That’s our number one goal here.”

Misawa’s life support oversees the equipment, gear and survival training of about 90 pilots, both those with the 13th and 14th fighter squadrons and others not attached to the wing, such as fliers from 5th Air Force and visiting dignitaries.

“Anyone who flies in the F-16,” Ryan said.

Life support technicians ensure a pilot’s helmet fits and that all the headgear pieces work, from tiny snaps to vital microphones. They make sure nothing is broken or ripped before an aviator closes the cockpit and that he knows how to use the 30 pounds to 40 pounds of equipment on his body, from the signal mirror in his survival vest to the life-raft sea anchor.

“If the equipment fails or they don’t know how to use it, it’s a done deal,” Ryan said.

Life support is a job that literally can mean the difference between life and death for an aviator, especially at Misawa, where the jets are single-engine and 90 percent of the fighter pilots’ missions are over water. And that water, during northern Japan’s long winters, often is ice cold.

“About 60 to 70 percent of the time that we fly, the water is below 60 degrees,” Padilla said.

In water that chilly, take away the anti-exposure suit — or put a tear in it — and a pilot would have about 15 to 20 minutes before his body would start to shut down and he wouldn’t be able to keep himself alive, said Staff Sgt. Tony Raciborski, who oversees combat and water survival training.

“If equipment such as the harness, survival vest, anti-exposure suit, if that type of equipment failed, we’d be SOL, for lack of a better word, outside the aircraft,” Padilla said.

“Their expertise allows us to fly our mission and focus on the training as opposed to what’s going to happen if we punch out today,” Padilla said of life support.

Ryan said that everyone in life support is a jack-of-all-trades, with knowledge of numerous programs and systems, from night vision goggles to aircrew chemical warfare defense.

“The operations tempo is fairly high here,” he said. “Being able to maintain the standard that we do under a pretty good operations tempo is truly a hats-off to my guys.”

The next challenge for the life support team is fitting Misawa’s fighter pilots with a new helmet piece, called the joint helmet mounting cueing system. The device, among other features, allows pilots to accurately direct onboard weapons against enemy aircraft while performing high-G aircraft maneuvers. The system is part of upgrades and new training that Misawa’s F-16s and pilots currently are receiving in the States.

“We’re getting ready to come on line with it,” Ryan said. “Our biggest role is to make sure it’s maintained and fits correctly, which is huge. If it doesn’t fit correctly, it’s of no use to them.”

The first planes are due back Aug. 9, officials said.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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