Generating airpower: From the ground up
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- (This article is the initial piece 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.)
From beginning to end, it's 9,999 feet. For many Airmen here, it's a home away from home. It has to be. Some of the world's most threatening machines live here and must always be prepared to strike, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
It's Misawa Air Base's flight line, and it hosts some of the most resilient Airmen in the entire U.S. Air Force. Most of them are maintainers from the 35th Maintenance Group, and they're the backbone of an unrivaled aerial force that provides the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses if called upon.
"This flight line never sleeps," said Staff Sgt. Seth Puit, a 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief who has spent the past 18 months at Misawa.
Puit is one of about 975 enlisted maintainers across 22 career fields who brave the cold, snowy winters and hot, muggy summers here to keep 44 F-16 Fighting Falcons - split between the 13th and 14th Fighter Squadrons -- in action year-round.
Puit said each day starts nearly the same with an early morning wakeup and an old-fashioned roll call to make sure headcounts are where they need to be.
"The next thing we do is get to fixing jets," he said. "We get our assignments, get our tools ready and get to work."
It's not always that simple, but maintainers know how to find their way around just about any problem. As one of about 180 crew chiefs at Misawa, Puit has a hand in almost every fix possible on an F-16. It's a congruity shared by most of those who spend their time in a world full of long workdays, ear protection, busted knuckles and the undying scent of jet fuel.
"We [pilots] know these guys are out there when the snow is coming down, the wind is blowing -- out in the elements," said Lt. Col. John McDaniel, 35 FW F-16 pilot and special assistant to the commander. "They're out there changing tires, fueling jets and making necessary fixes to keep us airborne."
From planning and scheduling flights to loading up AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles on swarms of jets, these Airmen have their hands on literally every aspect of the operation. Being part of the 35 MXS is no small task; they're biggest squadron in Pacific Air Forces, which is responsible for 50 percent of the world's population stretching across 36 nations.
The sole purpose of this huge area of responsibility and worldwide presence is to project airpower from the ground up. The mission here is the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, and its terminating stages are carried out by more than 50 F-16 pilots assigned to the wing.
"We're the only SEAD game in town," McDaniel said, who commanded the 13 FS for nearly two years. "We're capable of a lot; we can kill all enemy air threats, suppress or kill surface threats, and have the ability to drop bombs on targets."
The SEAD mission has a worldwide impact, and there's no question that maintenance is the framework for its success, said Lt. Col. Gene Sherer, 35th Operations Group commander who has been flying the SEAD mission for nine years and has flown with the 13 and 14 FS's here.
"We are incredibly proficient; the integration between squadrons is seamless and both contain outstanding pilots and maintainers," Sherer said.
Sherer has flown in Operation Northern Watch, Operation Southern Watch and most recently in Operation Iraqi Freedom where he was able to execute the SEAD mission in its purest form.
"It's an amazing experience," Sherer said. "We did some dropping on troops in contact, on some enemy vehicles -- the whole mix. After we established our air dominance with SEAD, we were able to lean more toward helping our guys on the ground."
It's fitting those in the air provide security for those who spend countless hours preparing jets on the ground.
"They're exceptional -- I've never seen it better," Sherer said of 35 MXS maintainers.
McDaniel echoed those thoughts and said he'll always remember a story that epitomizes the nature of a maintainer. He was driving into work during a winter storm in almost 30 mph winds, and as he entered the flight line he could faintly make out the shape of an F-16 through the snow as it rested outside its hangar.
McDaniel said it was nasty out and the snow was coming down hard, and on top of the jet were a crew of maintainers working on the jet's gun in the frigid conditions.
"If the jet is outside, we're outside," Puit said. "We take pride in our work. A good maintainer always takes pride in his jet."
"These guys are dedicated," McDaniel said. "They're really the unsung heroes; they do a ton of work and don't always receive credit for it."
That type of dedicated work translated into more than 6,000 sorties and 8,000 hours flown in 2013 alone, with higher rates projected through 2014. More flights mean more maintenance - a lifestyle maintainers embrace, especially at Misawa.
"We know we have to keep jets in the air, and these jets aren't flying without us," Puit said. "We have the right people working here to get the job done. I never want to leave."
It's a sentiment shared by pilots as well.
"Ultimately, our success is only made possible by their success," Sherer said. "It's all about teamwork."