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Staff Sgt. Edwin L. May and Airman Linnon Lathan work on an F-15 in the hangar at Bitburg Air Base, Germany, in November, 1979.
Staff Sgt. Edwin L. May and Airman Linnon Lathan work on an F-15 in the hangar at Bitburg Air Base, Germany, in November, 1979. (Gus Schuettler / S&S)
Staff Sgt. Edwin L. May and Airman Linnon Lathan work on an F-15 in the hangar at Bitburg Air Base, Germany, in November, 1979.
Staff Sgt. Edwin L. May and Airman Linnon Lathan work on an F-15 in the hangar at Bitburg Air Base, Germany, in November, 1979. (Gus Schuettler / S&S)
Senior Airman Terry Anderson, 20, from Littleton, Colo., post-flights an F-15 “Eagle” after a training mission last May at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania.
Senior Airman Terry Anderson, 20, from Littleton, Colo., post-flights an F-15 “Eagle” after a training mission last May at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania. (Ben Bloker / S&S)

Pilots still seem to get most of the attention and glory. But as airframes get older, the work of those who turn wrenches and keep the aircraft in good repair gets more important. And receives more attention.

Not that they’ll likely end up in the spotlight.

“No,” said Tech. Sgt. Steven Browne of the 86th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, on the likelihood he’ll be portrayed in a movie anytime soon. “It’s more of a backstage or behind-the-scenes kind of thing. We’ll let the pilots get all the glory.”

Pilots these days are more than willing to spread some of the glory around, though.

A coupl of pilots assigned to the 510th Fighter Squadron at Aviano Air Base in Italy said they don’t fear for their safety because of the age and flying hours put on the F-16s they fly. They credit their counterparts in maintenance for that confidence.

First Lt. Jacob Conger said he drives a 2003 Nissan Acura to and from the base. But he said he can fly a jet more than a decade older at much higher speeds because of the care that it receives from base maintenance crews.

“I don’t think of the F-16 as old,” he said. “The maintainers are taking really good care of them. You go out and look at the flight line, and some of them look brand new.”

Maintainers themselves use car analogies.

“Just like a car, [an airplane] gets older and needs more maintenance to keep it up and running,” said Master Sgt. Kiwon Kim, who works on KC-135 Stratotankers at the 100th Air Refueling Wing at RAF Mildenhall, England.

“You can relate it to your car,” said Col. Bruce Litchfield, director of logistics for Pacific Air Forces. “I got my dad’s car when I first came in the Air Force. That was 1972. [The KC-135] is 1958. I no longer have my 1972 car, but this airplane is still flying out there.”

When the 510th deployed to Iraq last year, pilots and maintainers faced a number of challenges.

“Obviously, with the older jets, we were a bit concerned with fulfilling all our requirements,” said Capt. Chris Carden. “We had a few (incidents), but we were able to respond every time we were called.”

The in-flight incidents were resolved as soon as the pilot landed, but they illustrated the potential problems that can arise from aging aircraft.

Carden said maintainers don’t get a lot of time off these days — especially with the Air Force’s decision to eliminate jobs around the service to pay for the newer aircraft it says it needs.

“Pretty much everyone I talk to in maintenance works 12-hour days,” he said.

“Older aircraft take a whole lot more work to keep them up and mission-capable,” said Col. Dorothy Silvanic, chief of maintenance for U.S. Air Forces in Europe.

They also cost more to maintain, making less money available for newer planes.

“But the fact is we have to make sure we meet the mission requirements,” Silvanic said.

“The job our maintenance people do is really incredible,” she said. “Folks are working hard every day to make sure we meet the mission.”

Staff writers Geoff Ziezulewicz and Jennifer Svan contributed to this report.

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