Before heading to the jet, pilots gear up in the flight equipment room where they are greeted by 35th Operations Support Squadron aircrew flight equipment technicians who prepared everything they need for the day ahead.
“The AFE personnel are imperative to the mission,” said Col. Travis Rex, the 35th Fighter Wing vice commander. “The amount of gear qualifications and items they maintain on a daily basis is massive. By keeping track of the pilot gear and the egress system, along with other items, they ensure we can safely get back home if anything were to happen during the flight.”
From the outside looking in, it can seem only a few pieces of equipment are present, but AFE technicians know there is more than what meets the eye.
The technicians hand the pilots a life preserver survival vest, parachute harness, a joint mounted cueing system helmet, display unit, MBU 20/P oxygen mask and an anti-G-LOC suit, all which are inspected for serviceability before and after flights.
Staff Sgt. Faitha Brookins, 35th OSS AFE NCO in charge, said F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter pilot essentials, like the helmet system, must be ready at all times so they can see and lock on targets during air-to-air combat.
“Fitting one pilot’s display mask to their face takes approximately four hours for us,” Brookins said. “We have to measure all sides of their face and account for large or small jawlines and then shave off the plastic slowly. This [ensures] the display mask is made to fit them perfectly while they are flying and prevents it from being too loose and moving around while they’re in combat.”
Adding to the list of necessary pieces of flight equipment, the egress system, which is the ejection seat and parachuting gear in the cockpit of the aircraft, undergoes a thorough inspection process to ensure it does not fail when deployed.
The system inspection can take anywhere from one to two days, consisting of unpacking each section, checking the F-16 seating system, providing repairs if needed and putting it back together.
Whether the system will be used in the year or not, this inspection is done at least annually by a qualified, high-level chute rigger.
“We take a long time during this inspection because we are not allowed any margin of error,” said Staff Sgt. Travis Tillman, 35th OSS AFE technician. “If pilots have to use the system in an emergency situation, it has to deploy without a problem in order to save their life. That is why this system, as well as the inspections we perform, are so important.”
Aside from the parachute system, there are certain daily checks done for all flying accessories used.
“When we do a preflight inspection we make sure everything in their locker is ready for use,” Brookins said. “We want to make sure it’s 100 percent reliable, because if anything happens with the aircrew members once they leave through those doors, we are held responsible since our names are on those pieces of equipment.”
Even unused items are checked periodically allowing a greater coverage of safety for the pilots.
“Some of the crew members don’t fly daily so they don’t receive a pre-flight and post-flight inspection,” Brookins said. “So we want to make sure every 30 days we get eyes on that equipment for a thorough inspection to make sure nothing is compromised in the pilot’s equipment.”
Brookins explained during this time they disassemble every piece for inspection. By doing so they can confirm whether a piece of equipment has a chance of malfunctioning and needs to be replaced.
“Everything we inspect and touch is life-saving equipment,” Brookins said. “When these pilots perform the mission, they have a sense of security knowing they received functioning gear.”
From takeoff to landing, pilots are always in the care of the 35th OSS aircrew flight equipment shop, as they equip them with everything they need for a safe flight.“We have done our jobs right if when they have to eject out of the aircraft because a mission went south, and our equipment worked, we saved their life,” Brookins said. “That means the pilot comes home to their family and flies another day.”