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Senior Airman Juan Reyes, a weapons load crew member at Misawa Air Base, Japan, checks a cluster bomb unit during the 35th Maintenance Group's load crew competition Tuesday in Hangar 911.
Senior Airman Juan Reyes, a weapons load crew member at Misawa Air Base, Japan, checks a cluster bomb unit during the 35th Maintenance Group's load crew competition Tuesday in Hangar 911. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)
Senior Airman Juan Reyes, a weapons load crew member at Misawa Air Base, Japan, checks a cluster bomb unit during the 35th Maintenance Group's load crew competition Tuesday in Hangar 911.
Senior Airman Juan Reyes, a weapons load crew member at Misawa Air Base, Japan, checks a cluster bomb unit during the 35th Maintenance Group's load crew competition Tuesday in Hangar 911. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)
Senior Airmen Juan Reyes and Eric Windsor and Staff Sgt. Brandon Williams, left to right, review their checklist one last time during the 35th Maintenance Group's load crew competition.
Senior Airmen Juan Reyes and Eric Windsor and Staff Sgt. Brandon Williams, left to right, review their checklist one last time during the 35th Maintenance Group's load crew competition. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)
Staff Sgt. Jerod Miller checks a missile during the 35th Maintenance Group's load crew competition Tuesday at Misawa.
Staff Sgt. Jerod Miller checks a missile during the 35th Maintenance Group's load crew competition Tuesday at Misawa. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)
Senior Airman Eric Windsor adjusts one of the new cluster bomb racks being installed on F-16s at Misawa Air Base, Japan. The rack was used in the 35th Maintenance Group's load crew competition.
Senior Airman Eric Windsor adjusts one of the new cluster bomb racks being installed on F-16s at Misawa Air Base, Japan. The rack was used in the 35th Maintenance Group's load crew competition. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)
Senior Airman Eric Windsor checks a missile during the competition at Misawa.
Senior Airman Eric Windsor checks a missile during the competition at Misawa. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Senior Airman Juan Reyes was pacing in Hangar 911, mentally reviewing countless checklists he long since had memorized.

In 15 minutes, he was to do something he practices routinely — except now it would be before dozens of his colleagues, two generals, three judges and a ticking clock.

“I’m very nervous,” Reyes said Tuesday afternoon.

The “load crew of the year competition” can fray nerves, as some of Misawa’s airmen discovered Tuesday when they battled to earn bragging rights as the base’s best weapons loaders. Two aircraft maintenance units from 35th Maintenance Group each had to install two missiles and a bomb on an F-16. The team with the fastest time and fewest errors wins.

“It’s the biggest event of the year for a weapons load crew,” said Senior Airman Eric Windsor. “It’s what it comes down to.”

The competition is an Air Force tradition. “As long as we’ve been loading bombs, they’ve been doing it,” said Staff Sgt. Shawn Ingalls, loading standardization crew member for 35th Maintenance Group.

“I’m sure they’ll be nervous, but it’s fun for them,” he added. “They may only get to do this once. These are honestly the top people at their job.”

Reyes’ team, which also included Windsor and load crew team chief Staff Sgt. Brandon Williams, loads weapons for the 14th Fighter Squadron at Misawa. They earned a spot in Tuesday’s contest through top performances in monthly and quarterly competitions, designed to ensure the base’s approximately 180 weapons troops meet Air Force requirements for how often they practice loading fighters and to boost morale and camaraderie, officials said.

The year-end competition is more challenging, however: Each team starts out with 2,000 points and must answer a 20-question test about their job, undergo a dress-and-appearance evaluation and perform in front of an audience.

Bleachers and special seats were set up in the hangar Tuesday for numerous U.S. and Japan Air Self-Defense Force airmen whose job it is to load fighters, along with 35th Fighter Wing and base commander Brig. Gen. Bill Rew and JASDF 3rd Air Wing Commander Maj. Gen. Hidetoshi Hirata.

It typically takes about 47 minutes to install weapons, Reyes said. For the competition, his team was hoping to finish in 17 minutes. Though Reyes and crew finished several minutes ahead of the 13th Aircraft Maintenance Unit of Staff Sgt. Jerod Miller, Senior Airman Nathan Werley and Senior Airman Webb Wiggins, results won’t be announced until Tuesday.

Master Sgt. Edward McDaniels, weapons superintendent, 35th Maintenance Group, said evaluators need time to write up the results. Also, the flight chief for each team has the opportunity to argue any marks.

The quickest team doesn’t always win, he said. “If they get a safety or reliability [deduction], those are your heaviest points right there.”

Oversights that can whittle down a score include failing to set a jet’s parking brake before loading weapons or using the wrong fuse setting on a bomb, McDaniels and Ingalls said.

Members of both teams said Tuesday they were a bit worried about using a new bomb rack that can carry two cluster bomb units instead of one. The rack simplifies the loading process, but they only recently began training to use it.

Wiggins, on the 13th Aircraft Maintenance Unit team, still liked his team’s chances despite a slower time.

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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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