Their craft keeps planes in the air
RAF LAKENHEATH — Staff Sgt. Joe Culberson and Airman 1st Class Bryson Huie know the F-15 fighter jet like few others.
The two 48th Equipment Maintenance Squadron crew chiefs are among members of a team responsible for the intense maintenance known as “phase inspections” that are vital to keeping the fighter jet fit to fly.
Culberson, 28, of Chattanooga, Tenn., and Huie, 20, of Federal Way, Wash., have oversight over a host of airmen who maintain different aspects of the aircraft, from the jet engines capable of producing 32,000 pounds of thrust to the sheet-metal panels that absorb the brunt of that thrust and scores of moving parts in between.
“We do so much to keep those planes ready to fly, and it takes a lot of time, but I am still amazed at how hard they push the aircraft once it’s in the sky,” Huie said.
Routine maintenance is conducted on the flight line by a separate contingent of airmen. But pulling panels from the plane, inspecting its inner workings and correcting any faults are the domain of the phase inspection crew.
“We actually dig deeper into the plane than the guys on the flight line to really figure out what’s wrong and what needs attention,” Culberson said.
Part of that digging includes putting pieces of metal through an X-ray machine to test for minute cracks. The squadron soon will start using a new digital X-ray device that will allow the airmen to view the metal like a video rather than a still piece of film.
Huie and Culberson appreciate the F-15 and its singular peculiarities due to their focused training and countless hours supervising the aircraft’s maintenance. But they still recognize the need to treat each inspection as unique.
“First, we do a look phase and then we do a fix phase,” Culberson said. “We find everything first, and then we go fix it all. And it’s not always the same. Certain planes react differently to different factors.”
While the phase inspection is the most robust performed on base, the F-15 also undergoes a more intense overhaul when it is flown to the United States for what the Air Force terms “depot” maintenance, which is conducted at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., by Boeing engineers.
The 48th EMS is led by Chief Master Sgt. Roy Bowden, 47, of New York City, who said the recent grounding of the F-15 fighter jets had not led to any specific troubleshooting for airmen in the squadron.
The F-15E models were cleared to fly last Wednesday while other models remained grounded.
Bowden said his crews will wait for the investigation to be complete before dissecting the F-15 C and D models on RAF Lakenheath.
“It all depends on what they find and what they give to us,” Bowden said. “Then we might need to get in there and see if we can find similar problems on our aircraft.”