'Crew dogs' keep Misawa's warbirds preened and prime
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — They are the last faces F-16 pilots see before going skyward — fatigue-clad men and women lingering near the end of the base’s 11,000-foot-long runway in elements that can change from sunshine to a raging whiteout.
Wearing ear plugs and protective headsets, they scurry around F-16s whose engines are idling. They look for panels that might not have been closed or arm inert munitions hanging from the wings.
If pilots leave here with peace of mind, it likely is in part from knowing the end-of-runway crews have given their aircraft the once-over before a push of the throttle kicks the fighters away.
“It’s a break from the day-to-day flight line routine for me,” Senior Airman Sean Rafferty, 21, an assistant F-16 crew chief from Chamberville, Pa., said of his two-week stint pulling EOR duty. Most “crew dogs,” as crew chiefs are called here, pull a month of EOR duty at a time.
When he isn’t waiting for F-16s to taxi for takeoffs, or meeting them when they return to base, Rafferty clocks 10-hour days helping a senior crew chief maintain the $21 million F-16 aircraft.
“We’re always running around when I’m not working EOR; it keeps me pretty busy,” Rafferty said.
Misawa weather can be fickle.
The concrete pads — where F-16s taxi and hold for the EOR crews — intensify in summer temperatures, which easily can surpass 100 degrees.
Snow squalls move in during winter, dropping visibility to near zero and forcing pilots to hold or even sometimes scrub missions.
But weather is seldom a concern, Rafferty said.
“We always dress for the weather, and we’re up against the jet when we’re working EOR,” he said.
A bigger concern is working EOR at night.
Portable lighting equipment carts, called lightalls, are rolled to the EOR to provide illumination for crews launching night sorties.
Still, “there’s less visibility at night,” Rafferty said. “The work is more difficult then.”
Tech Sgt. Shane Holmes, a 15-year Air Force veteran from Durant, Okla., is the EOR’s noncommissioned officer in charge. He says EOR troops look for many things before giving the pilot a salute: “critical defects like leaks, panels that didn’t get closed or pins that didn’t get pulled that should have. If they don’t do something right, the sortie can be scrubbed.”
Up to a half-dozen F-16s can be lined up at EOR for missions. Troops have from one to five minutes to look each one over before aircraft are launched.
“Things move pretty quickly when nothing is wrong, but sometimes a problem may show up that may or may not be taken care of at EOR,” he said.
Winter at Misawa brings a seasonal hazard that EOR troops look for: ice damage.
When atmospheric conditions are just right — a combination of air temperature and humidity — ice can form on the lip of the F-16’s engine air intake in the 10 minutes or so it takes to taxi from the fighter squadrons to EOR.
“If ice builds up thick enough, it can break off and be ingested into the engine,” said Senior Master Sgt. Dan Otterness, assistant maintenance supervisor of the 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.
If the ice manages to get past the engine’s first internal stage, Otterness said, it could wreak havoc with the thousands of small vanes on spinning discs further inside the engine, relegating the engine, and the mission, to history.
“If ice builds to thicker than a quarter of an inch, we tell the pilot to shut down the engine so the ice can be broken loose,” he said.
That adds about 30 minutes to getting aircraft off the ground.
“It doesn’t happen often, maybe once a month during December and January,” he said. “It’s worst during February.”
EOR troops also may notice a safety defect that could put the aircraft and its pilot at risk, such as tires showing red cord, indicating they’re worn.
Holmes says that rarely happens.
“Less than 5 percent of sorties are canceled due to safety issues found at EOR,” he said.
EOR troops gather at one of two small buildings — Holmes jokingly refers to them as “estates” — near each end of Misawa’s runway.
Prevailing wind conditions determine from which end of the east-west runway pilots take off — meaning that EOR troops sometimes must jump into a van and hustle to the opposite end.
Far from luxurious, the buildings shout “utility.”
Each one houses coffee pots for a hot cup of brew and a refrigerator holding cold drinks. There’s a television set, facsimile machine, telephone and a well-used sofa.
Otterness said things can get hectic for crews if an F-16 returns with a problem.
“Munitions that didn’t drop off the aircraft, hot brakes or a fuel leak can complicate things,” he said. “It gets pretty busy when emergency response crews all show up; the response time is pretty amazing.”
Working beside crew dogs are weapons loaders, such as Senior Airman Laura Quiroz. She makes sure inert munitions slung on rails underneath F-16 wings are ready for each mission.
“I look for defects that might have been missed when munitions are loaded,” said Quiroz, 23, from Demmitt, Texas. She’s called “Q” by most of her co-workers.
Pins that keep munitions securely fastened to the aircraft while on the ground must be pulled at EOR so they fall away when the pilot punches a button on his cockpit control stick.
Quiroz works with two other “weapons” troops at EOR, each assigned to do a specific job.
“We arm the loads from the fuselage outward when they leave, and [disarm] them from the outside in when they return,” Quiroz said. “We’re very critical to the mission.”
She dismissed Misawa’s bitter weather. “I worked 14 jets today. I got pretty sweaty at times,” said “Q,” who hopes to be looking at EOR crews someday from a different perspective.
“Becoming an F-16 pilot is a goal of mine.”