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Air Force aircrew specialists ensure equipment functions for flight

Staff Sgt. Robert Rodriguez who works as a Air Crew Flight Equipment Tech for the Air Force at Langley. He builds, repairs, inspects and cleans all the needed gear that keeps Air Force pilots safe inside their aircraft. The helmets are checked and cleaned as needed for the pilots.

JOE FUDGE/DAILY PRESS (TNS)

By HUGH LESSIG | The Daily Press (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 12, 2016

HAMPTON, Va. (Tribune News Service) — It takes more than missiles for an F-22 Raptor pilot to fly into combat. Staff Sgt. Robert Rodriguez has the list.

A pilot needs a custom-made helmet and oxygen mask, parachute, torso harness, vest, G-suit, survival equipment and possibly night-vision goggles. If shot down or forced to eject, they carry emergency water packs, a signal mirror, a flare, camouflage paint, a radio, spare batteries.

And more.

Rodriguez's fingerprints are all over this stuff.

He is an aircrew flight equipment specialist, or AFE, at Langley Air Force Base.

These airmen work in relative obscurity with tools as basic as a sewing machine — "we're pretty good with needles," Rodriguez says — to maintain every inch of a pilot's personal equipment so nothing is torn, frayed or broken.

Staff Sgt. Robert Rodriguez who works as a Air Crew Flight Equipment Tech for the Air Force at Langley. He builds, repairs, inspects and cleans all the needed gear that keeps Air Force pilots safe inside their aircraft.

"In the back of your head, you know this could possibly get used today," he said.
Rodriguez has five other AFEs in his "shop," he said. He works for pilots in the 27th Fighter Squadron. They have all learned to do inspections step by step. If you're meticulous and pay attention to detail, it's easier to sleep at night.

"You literally have pilots' lives in your hands," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez, who grew up in Santa Maria, Calif., said he would always rush from the house whenever an airplane flew overhead. Now in his fifth year at Langley, he's much more familiar with the behind-the-scenes work required to make pilots safe.

A radar system aboard the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford has undergone a successful test. The system provides landing guidance for aircraft approaching the flight deck. The test required an F-18 Super Hornet to make several passes within about 500 feet of the ship.

A radar system aboard the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford has undergone a successful test. The system provides landing guidance for aircraft approaching the flight deck. The test required an F-18 Super Hornet to make several passes within about 500 feet of the ship.

His job description is pretty simple.

"We maintain it, inspect it, repair it, clean it and fit it to make sure it's 100 percent good to go across the board," he said.

In reality, the work is highly meticulous. Consider the standard flying helmet.

Custom-fitted to a pilot's head, the helmet must be checked for cracks and loose fittings and screws. Inside the back of the helmet, a bladder fills with air during periods of high acceleration. If it doesn't function, it's a problem.

The pilot's custom-fit oxygen mask tends to lift away from the face as G forces increase. The right amount of pressure in back of the helmet keeps the mask snug, maintaining oxygen and ensuring the pilot doesn't get dizzy or disoriented.

The oxygen mask itself must be disassembled and cleaned on a regular basis.

Rodriguez said it can take about 35 minutes just to inspect the helmet and mask.
Then it's onto the torso harness. It fits over the pilot with a thick collar that inflates as a life preserver in the event of a crash or ejection over water. Another important feature, the torso harness connects to the parachute, which is integrated into the aircraft. The harness comes with a mini-strobe light that is infrared, invisible to the naked eye but able to be seen by rescuers with night vision goggles.

Pilots flying combat missions also wear a vest with survival equipment. The vest is a simple mesh, and Rodriguez must sew various pockets onto it — and sew loops inside those pockets — so the equipment is secure and easily accessible. It includes a flare, a tourniquet that can be applied with one hand, a radio, a compass, a signal mirror and emergency packs of drinking water.

Has the flare expired? Is the mirror cracked? The flight equipment specialist must find out.

Then comes the G suit, which fits tightly over the legs and torso. Because the brain can be deprived of blood during high acceleration, the G suit acts like a giant blood pressure cuff, inflating at higher and higher levels to push blood upward. It keeps a pilot from passing out or experiencing tunnel vision.

The G suit fittings must be inspected, and it must inflate properly.

Generally speaking, anything that is frayed or worn must be repaired or replaced.

"You have to play close attention to detail," Rodriguez said. "If you miss something, it could be a fatal mistake."

Coming to Langley straight from initial training, he said the job "was a little bit stressful" at first. One of his first tasks was packing parachutes, an annual chore that can take seven hours for an inexperienced airman to complete. Inspecting the survival equipment that's incorporated into the ejection apparatus, which includes a life raft, can take almost as long.

"The job is fun," he said. "It's a good time."

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