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U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Matthew Crabtree works on the avionics in the cockpit of an F-16 Fighting Falcon at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Round-the-clock sorties mean much maintenance must happen at night.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Matthew Crabtree works on the avionics in the cockpit of an F-16 Fighting Falcon at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Round-the-clock sorties mean much maintenance must happen at night. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Matthew Crabtree works on the avionics in the cockpit of an F-16 Fighting Falcon at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Round-the-clock sorties mean much maintenance must happen at night.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Matthew Crabtree works on the avionics in the cockpit of an F-16 Fighting Falcon at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Round-the-clock sorties mean much maintenance must happen at night. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

American maintenance crews work on an F-16 Fighting Falcon at night at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. The country's single fighter unit maintains 24-hour patrols.

American maintenance crews work on an F-16 Fighting Falcon at night at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. The country's single fighter unit maintains 24-hour patrols. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon sits in a hangar at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Pilots with the 388th Fighter Wing?s 421st Fighter Squadron out of Hill Air Force Base, Utah, are still flying round-the-clock patrols and dropping bombs.

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon sits in a hangar at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Pilots with the 388th Fighter Wing?s 421st Fighter Squadron out of Hill Air Force Base, Utah, are still flying round-the-clock patrols and dropping bombs. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Technicians work on an F-16 Fighting Falcon as the sun sets over Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Crews work around the clock to keep up with the demands of having aircraft in the air all day and night.

Technicians work on an F-16 Fighting Falcon as the sun sets over Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Crews work around the clock to keep up with the demands of having aircraft in the air all day and night. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jarred Harrell maintains the avionics in the cockpit of an F-16 Fighting Falcon at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Airmen say as the computers inside the aging airframes have become more complex, they require more work.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jarred Harrell maintains the avionics in the cockpit of an F-16 Fighting Falcon at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Airmen say as the computers inside the aging airframes have become more complex, they require more work. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Airman 1st Class Trent Brodish, right, and Airman 1st Class Michael McDaniel work on the wing-tip missile release mechanism of an F-16 Fighting Falcon at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.

Airman 1st Class Trent Brodish, right, and Airman 1st Class Michael McDaniel work on the wing-tip missile release mechanism of an F-16 Fighting Falcon at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — As America’s only fighter squadron in Afghanistan continues round-the-clock patrols, maintenance crews work long hours to keep aircraft aloft.

“We have to have crews ready to go all the time,” said Tech. Sgt. Lee Fortin, an Air Force reservist who has worked in aircraft maintenance since the 1980s. Crews with the 388th Fighter Wing’s 421st Fighter Squadron often work late into the night under the light of headlamps to conduct the never-ending task of keeping F-16 Fighting Falcons airworthy.

The squadron keeps at least two, and often more, of its F-16s in the air at all times.

The demands of operating in a combat zone are higher than when flying at home at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Fortin said.

“Sometimes, we get spread kind of thin, dealing with so many things out here,” he said. “In a war zone, we can’t let things wait. Here, we have to have everything on line all the time.”

Many of the greatest maintenance challenges arise from the ever more complex computer systems being used, even in aging airframes like that of the F-16, said Master Sgt. Darrin Sather, a weapons superintendent.

“New aircraft are almost too smart for themselves,” he said. “There are often many avionics issues.”

smith.josh@stripes.com Twitter: @joshjonsmith

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