Generating Airpower: Weapons bring the bang
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.)
Loaded with radar-guided and heat-seeking missiles, bombs and a sniper targeting pod, the look of a fully loaded F-16 Fighting Falcon can be downright intimidating. But for a certain group of people here, it's an empty one that sends chills down their spine.
"It's an indescribable feeling," said Staff Sgt. Andrew Waddell, 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron load crew team chief. "It's hard to explain what it's like loading a 2,000-pound bomb on a jet and seeing it come back empty knowing it potentially ended someone's life."
Waddell works in the weapons section where they're responsible for loading munitions, troubleshooting and maintaining weapons on 44 F-16 Fighting Falcons at Misawa.
Their "office" is a 9,999-foot flightline, and their shifts begin with a roll call in a cramped Aircraft Maintenance Unit with constant noise and traffic that offers temporary respite from the outdoors. They spend their days loading and unloading jets in the snow, rain, sleet and blistering sun.
It's a blue-collared lifestyle; long hours are expected and the workload is dependent on the performance of the jets. With Misawa pilots flying more than 6,000 sorties annually, weapons troops are constantly prepared for action.
"It's hard work, but we know what we signed up for," said Airman 1st Class Deandre Thomas, a load crew member with the 35 AMXS. "We have to push sorties to keep our pilots sharp, so the mission is always going to come first."
The mission of the 35th Fighter Wing is the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, the only SEAD wing in Pacific Air Forces. With the largest area of responsibility of any Air Force major command, PACAF is responsible for over 100 million square miles and demands a dynamic and combat-ready posture from 35 FW Airmen.
"We're manned for war contingency where jets land and we turn that sortie and send it immediately back out," said Master Sgt. Lucian Williamson, 14th AMU weapons section chief who supervises 57 weapons maintainers. "The F-16 is a multi-role fighter, so we have to be ready for any type of weapons load. Our jets are capable of fighting offensively and posturing defensively, as well as executing air-to-air and air-to-ground missions."
Williamson said weapons troops stay prepared by remaining certified on a large variety of munitions during monthly certifications in the group's "load barn" - a hangar designated for timed load outs. Each load crew has around 20 minutes to complete each load, with varying time requirements determined by designated mission requirements.
Load crews are made up of inseparable three-man teams who work together to arm a jet with its entire weapon set for each sortie. They stick together their entire time stationed together on each base, adding to the already strong sense of ownership and teamwork associated with the maintaining lifestyle.
"The weapons career field is one where you must rely very strongly on wingmen," said Senior Airman Darious Furlow, 35 AMXS load crew member whose been working with F-16s for four years. "Every step we make has to do be done with the help of at least two others."
The end result of a successful load can be devastating to an adversary. For weapons maintainers, that's the goal - prepare their pilots to inflict the most appropriate damage possible.
"We give the aircraft its fighting capability," Waddell said. "Without weapons, we as an Air Force bring no threat to the fight."
The typical SEAD load out includes three AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles, one AIM-9 Sidewinder and two AGM-88 High-speed Anti-radiation Missiles, according to Lt. Col. John McDaniel, 35 FW F-16 pilot and special assistant to the commander.
McDaniel said pilots fly in four-ship sorties, eliminating immediate air threats and carrying out SEAD mission requirements as necessary.
"There are a lot of people who play a big role in making the mission happen," McDaniel said. "We can't do this without everyone playing their part."
It's the epitome of teamwork, and it begins on the ground. By nature, maintainers stay out of the spotlight. They keep a close circle, running each other ragged with good-tempered ribbing and knuckle-breaking work. But when it comes down to it, they know their value and their impact can't be masked.
"It's a special feeling knowing our hard work behind the scenes might be the difference in saving the lives of troops downrange," Waddell said. "It's both prideful and surreal."
Furlow is less reserved, and maybe rightfully so - his load crew won the 35 FW's most recent Load Crew of the Quarter competition.
"There's an old saying that a good weapons troop is a pilot's best friend," Furlow said. "Everyone has an important role and we all work together, but you can't execute the mission without weapons."