European edition, Thursday, May 3, 2007

MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, Romania — Maybe it was the unseasonably cold weather. Possibly it was the high flight tempo. Or it could have been a simple mechanical failure.

But whatever caused a landing gear problem on an F-15 Eagle during air-to-air combat training at this Romanian air force base Wednesday, it won’t keep the fighter jet out of operation for long.

“We know we have a problem so we’ll tow it into the hangar, put it up on jacks and troubleshoot for any malfunction,” said Senior Master Sgt. Santos Rodriguez, 48th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron lead production supervisor. “If we don’t finish this afternoon, the swing shift will come in and finish it tonight. We’ll have it ready to fly by tomorrow.”

A combined 200 airmen from RAFs Mildenhall and Lakenheath in England have been in Romania the past two weeks participating in Exercise Sniper Lance. The exercise was slated to wrap up Thursday.

It’s the second annual training collaboration between U.S. Air Forces in Europe and the Romanian air force, which is making the transition from former Warsaw Pact element to NATO member.

While roughly two dozen pilots from the RAF Lakenheath-based 493rd Fighter Squadron dogfight their Romanian counterparts, dozens of support troops toil day and night ensuring the F-15 Eagles are ready to launch each morning.

Rodriguez, 42, of San Antonio, said about 10 aircraft technicians — with specialties in avionics, electronics, engines, sheet metal, hydraulics and weapons — are required to keep each F-15 Eagle flight ready.

“There are so many aspects to maintain this aircraft that we need different airmen with different specialties to make it all come together,” Rodriguez said.

There have been a handful of other maintenance issues outside Wednesday’s landing gear difficulty that have kept the maintenance airmen occupied.

A hydraulic line ruptured in one F-15 and an engine failed in another and had to be replaced — in less than four hours.

“It’s probably been done quicker, but that was pretty quick to change out an engine,” said Staff Sgt. Nick Hofmann.

The airmen who ensure the 493rd’s fighters are ready at a moment’s notice have distinguished themselves over the past several years as some of the most competent in the Air Force.

“They’re awesome at what they do,” said 493rd commander Lt. Col. Craig Wills. “They’ve led the entire Air Force in fully mission-capable rates for the last 2½ years. They are the reason we are as good as we are.”

Hofmann, 25, of Owatonna, Minn., said the 493rd has a culture that promotes excellence.

“There’s good people and good work. We all know how the game is played and how to get the job done,” he said. “It’s the kind of place where people don’t mind coming to work.”

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