Generating Airpower: The brains of the F-16
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- (This article is part of a series featuring the 35th Maintenance Group on their ability to generate airpower for the 35th Fighter Wing's Wild Weasels. The 35 MXG is compiled of 22 career fields that support the mission of the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, the only SEAD wing in Pacific Air Forces.)
In the dead of night, lit only by moonlight and scattered rows of lights, Misawa's flightline looks quiet and abandoned. But a closer look -- one inside the homes of dozens of F-16 Fighting Falcons - reveals a different world.
Huddled together in hangars, groups of avionics Airmen work tirelessly to keep the flightline awake, plugging away on jets while the rest of the world sleeps. They live their job 24/7 and execute one of the most critical roles in maintaining Misawa's aerial supremacy.
"We're always busy," said Senior Airman Justin Brummel, 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron avionics technician. "We're constantly launching and catching jets, diagnosing problems and preparing the next shift for success."
In the maintenance world, avionics plays a part in a little bit of everything ... or everything requires a little bit of avionics - however you see it. Brummel sees it both ways.
"Avionics is the electronics, computers, the wiring, the radios - all the technical aspects of the F-16 itself - bundled together into one job," Brummel explained. "There wouldn't be a mission here without us."
From nose to tail, an F-16 stretches about 50 feet and possesses an almost 33-foot wingspan. Within this warfighting machine are nearly 50 major systems maintained by avionics Airmen. Sometimes they're working weekends to calibrate a GPS system, others they're on the intercom troubleshooting with pilots directly before takeoff.
"It's almost addicting," said Staff Sgt. Andrew Mueller, 35 AMXS. "The gratification of fixing jets ...."
Mueller searches for words as two F-16 crew chiefs walk by and razz him about who's the most important on the flight line. It happens with regularity - maintainers are aggressively prideful of their trade. But in the big picture, Mueller is confident where he and his fellow avionics technicians stand.
"We are the big picture," Mueller said. "We're that integral center of operations within the jet that works with almost every section on the flightline."
There are so many systems avionics covers, it's sometimes difficult to keep track.
"Many of the troops out here who work on the jet every day have no idea some of these systems exist," Mueller said. "It happens because many maintainers are so rightfully focused on their aspect of the jet. But for us, we're working with nearly every aspect.
"With the F-16, most aspects are somehow connected, so we have to be completely aware of every section's systems and how they operate."
Some aspects require more attention than others, like AN/ALQ-184 electronic countermeasure pods, which are potential lifesavers for all F-16 fighter pilots.
In the avionics back shop, tucked alongside the 13th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, is the home to a handful of avionics maintainers whose sole mission is to produce and maintain these war-ready pods.
"The pods themselves jam radio detection and ranging signals, which is vital to the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses mission here," said Staff Sgt. Crayge Majors, 35th Maintenance Squadron electronic warfare team leader.
His supervisor, Tech. Sgt. Stephen Price, 35 MXS avionics assistant section chief, said he's spoken directly with pilots about the EW pods to really get a feel of their impact in the air.
"Once that enemy missile locks on to the jet, the jamming pod starts to employ," Price said. "The pods are smart enough to recognize what type of enemy threat they're facing and what type of technique to employ in a matter of microseconds."
Price said pilots are capable of a variety of responses, including aerial maneuvers, chaff that confuses enemy radars on aircraft locations, flares that mislead heat-seeking missiles, and the EW pods which can handle multiple radar threats and throw off the missile locks and tracking abilities of enemy radars.
"Our pods can help get our pilots out of tight situations and provide that extra sliver of time to keep them alive," Price said.
This year alone, Majors and his co-workers have serviced more than 100 EW pods. Their shop works like a factory servicing the 760-pound pods daily, with about 60 percent scheduled maintenance and 40 percent on-the-fly.
They share a warehouse with another almost hidden section that also plays a large hand in perfecting what's hidden inside the jet - the avionics intermediate section.
They're responsible for maintaining and repairing approximately 30 different line-replaceable units within the aircraft. In 2013, they serviced more than 200 units, keeping systems sharp and F-16 pilots employed.
"We work with anything that has to do with the communication and navigation systems of the jet," said Staff Sgt. Kris Johnson, 35 MXS team leader. "It can be academically and mentally demanding, but it's very rewarding knowing how impactful our efforts are."
It's a sentiment echoed not only by maintainers on the ground.
"It's very critical in a real-world scenario to be able to rely on these systems, especially with our primary mission of SEAD," said Capt. Jessa Charron, 35th Fighter Wing F-16 pilot. "It's significant knowing I have systems on my aircraft that can provide me and my flight the best chance at being lethal while survivable."
Along with the EW pods, Brummel and Mueller said more significant systems include GPS, flight controls, radar, and the Head's Up Display, or HUD, to name only a few.
"Looking through the Head's Up Display enables [pilots] to keep our eyes outside and still give us pertinent information in order to reduce our head's down time," Charron explained. "It keeps our situational awareness higher and gives us the ability to accomplish the mission more effectively and timely."
It's not just the systems that avionics troops deal with; they're often the first line of communication for pilots as well.
"We'll talk to the pilots regularly using the intercom and reviewing our tech data to discuss potential problems," Brummel said. "We gather all the info and narrow it down to the problem on the spot, then depending on what the situation calls for, we'll fix it as soon as possible."
The tempo never really slows down in avionics, whether jets are on the ground or in the air.
"On the no-fly days, you'll see a lot of shops waiting for work because their workload is dependent on flying," he said. "But we'll be out here at 6 a.m. on a Saturday turning wrenches all weekend thinking, 'man, it's a little quiet out here.'"
Brummel and Mueller could talk about avionics for days; they're passionate, motivated and knowledgeable - an attribute mandatory to being a successful avionics maintainer.
"That's the biggest challenge," Mueller emphasized, "the knowledge aspect.
"Guys get competitive about certain things - who can change a tire fastest or load a missile the quickest - but for us, it's who knows the most about the aircraft and its systems."
Much is asked of avionics, and they'd have it no other way. They're reliable and relentless -- even when it means losing some sleep.
"The amount of pressure and amount of diversity in this job can feel overwhelming," Brummel conceded. "But relying on each other and seeing jobs through is an amazing feeling ... it's like solving a puzzle you didn't have any hints to."