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US, S. Korean load teams compete to become 'Best on Pen'

By MARCUS FICHTL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 14, 2017

KUNSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — Six U.S. and South Korean load crews battled over the weekend for bragging rights to be the Korean peninsula’s premier load crew.

The 2017 Annual Load Crew Competition, hosted by the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base, saw six three-member U.S. and South Korean load crews based in South Korea and Japan, race to load their jets.

The 8th Fighter Wing’s maintenance commander, Col. James Long Jr., said Saturday’s competition had two goals: give the rest of the base a look into the weapons-loading world and a provide venue for the crews to show one another what they can do.

With a half-hour time limit, teams loaded their jets with three training munitions simulating a real-life load.

The judges graded speed, accuracy and attention to detail with an eye toward safety, said Tech Sgt. Corey Carlson, the event’s coordinator.

“We look for mistakes they make as far as forgetting to inspect specific portions of the aircraft or specific portions of the munitions,” said the 29-year-old from Clarinda, Iowa.

The event, which had been planned since November, had jets overflowing out of the hangars and into the Kunsan heat.

While the six teams simultaneously maneuvered around their aircraft, crowds chanted elaborate slogans and danced in sports jerseys denoting their respective squadrons.

As the judges tallied scores, crews played a game of “Jammer Jenga” by using specially modified loading equipment to skillfully remove Jenga blocks without toppling the tower rather than their usual roles of precisely loading bombs.

The games and cheers masked the serious undertone of the competition, which was held on a base that sits 140 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone dividing the peninsula.

That’s well within range of the massive arsenal possessed by North Korea, which test launched another missile Sunday.

The half-hour deadline given to the teams in the competition may very well be the time faced in a confrontation with the North – a fact not lost on Kunsan’s maintenance chief and his load crews.

“When it comes to combat generation, it all revolves around them and how quickly and safely they can do it,” Long said. “What determines how quickly an aircraft can get back in and fight is going to be how quickly we can turn the weapons piece – from the munitions getting out to the flight line and for the loaders to load that.”

The winning team was from the 36th Aircraft Maintenance Unit of Osan Air Base. Airman 1st Class Zackary Lau, 21, of Mildenhall, England; Senior Airman Zachery Ward, 27, of Tulsa, Okla.; and Staff Sgt. Andreous Madrid, 28, of Elk City, Okla., earned bragging rights and a jersey declaring them “Peninsula Wide Champions.”

“This a big win,” Madrid said. “We came with what we had and did it.”

fichtl.marcus@stripes.com

Twitter: @marcusfichtl

Competitors lift a weapon during the 2017 Annual Load Crew Competition at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, Saturday, May 13, 2017.
MARCUS FICHTL/STARS AND STRIPES

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