RAF LAKENHEATH, England — Bragging rights were on the line Friday as maintainers with the 48th Fighter Wing battled it out during the annual load crew of the year competition.

With a calculated quickness, four crews took turns outfitting F-15s with the weapons that sit at the heart of the fighter jet’s mission. But the winners won’t be able to boast until next week when the results of the contest are released during the 48th Maintenance Group banquet.

After a year of quarterly competitions at Lakenheath, the big contest – an Air Force tradition at bases around the world – boiled down to four crews. The 12 finalists represented the 493rd Fighter Squadron and Strike Eagle Weapons, the newly merged maintenance sections from the 492nd and the 494th Fighter Squadrons.

The wait “adds to the excitement,” said Sgt. Iickyra Jones, with Strike Eagle Weapons.

“The competition makes the job more fun. But it’s really intense,” said Jones, who competed during the first round of competition early Friday morning with Brig. Gen. John Hesterman, 48th Fighter Wing commander, looking on.

“It’s a lot of pressure. We do this every day but just being prepared to do it in front of the general and higher-ups takes it up a notch,” said Jones, who organized a few practice runs with his teammates earlier in the week to perfect their technique.

Jones, who had just arrived at Lakenheath and had never worked on the F-15 when last year’s competition was under way, said he felt accomplished for having made it to the final four this time around.

The teams are judged on the speed with which they load the missiles and bombs, and also against a checklist of safety standards, said Master Sgt. James Latham, Strike Eagle Weapons maintenance noncommissioned officer in charge.

Appearance also counts, he said. Often the winners are determined by the smallest of margins. Sometimes it comes down to seconds, other times it’s uniform or tool box inspections that determine the champions, he said.

Though the winning crew gets to keep the coveted trophy until the 2009 contest and bask in the glory of their win, the contest “definitely helps with the mission,” Latham said.

“It makes the load crews strive for excellence,” he said.

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