06/22/08 — 4th Fighter Wing Maintenance Group keeps Strike Eagles soaring

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4th Fighter Wing Maintenance Group keeps Strike Eagles soaring

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 22, 2008 2:02 AM

It is just after 3 on a winter morning in the Middle East.

A 4th Fighter Wing command pilot decides to clear his head over a walk down the flight line at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.

Snow is falling, but through the white, he can make out a group of young men huddled around an F-15E Strike Eagle.

As he nears the jet, he finds that they are members of the 335th Aircraft Maintenance Unit.

They appear "totally focused" on the task at hand, despite noticeable fatigue and temperatures nearing zero.

But that comes as no surprise to the pilot.

You come to expect that kind of professionalism from maintainers, he said.

Until their return just more than a month ago, units from the 4th Fighter Wing Maintenance Group had kept Strike Eagles in the skies over Afghanistan 24 hours a day for eight months straight -- enduring a Middle East winter complete with snow and sub-zero temperatures from an old Soviet base surrounded by an impoverished, war-stricken country.

Back at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, their comrades were working hard, too -- launching training sorties on warm spring days that felt more than 10 degrees hotter for those working
nine- to -12-hour shifts on the tarmac.

Col. Alan Northrup would tell you it does not matter where his airmen are stationed -- that they chase perfection during every shift, knowing failure is never an option.

Not in the desert.

Not in eastern North Carolina.

Not when lives are at stake.

"Our environment is very precise. You have to be right 100 percent of the time. Lives are on the line," said Northrup, 4th Maintenance Group commander. "And when you're taking an 18-year-old and allowing him to launch a $55 million airplane, perfect is the only way. Not pretty good. Not close enough."

So he holds them to high standards at home, hoping, "If practice is harder than the game, the game will be a piece of cake."

It is an intense business that requires tough leadership, Northrup said.

Still, he can't help but draw inspiration from the commitment and precision his young airmen show every day.

"They get rained on, they stand out there when it's hot ... yet they still produce," he said. "It's humbling to be around them."

Weapons load crew chief Brad Perkins is one of them.

The 27-year-old staff sergeant has gotten used to "pressure work," loading ammunition onto fighter jets under time constraints, making sure each piece of ordnance is ready to drop on target, on time.

And he knows the stakes.

"You have to get this thing perfect at the deployed location," Perkins said. "You have troops on the ground depending on you."

They depend on guys like Kenneth Barker, too.

The 25-year-old electrician is one of the airmen who helps keep the F-15s in flight and their weapons systems
operating properly.

"I can load a jet, but unless these guys get it off the ground, there's no point," Perkins said.

Barker knows his job has meaning.

All it took takes is a look skyward at a Strike Eagle passing by just after it completes a combat mission.

"When they fly over your head with a weapon missing, it's a rush," he said. "It's a great feeling."

And what makes that feeling better is sharing it with men and women he says are "like family."

"You pull together," he said. "You work as a team."

Senior Master Sgt. Samuel Couch has seen that teamwork pay off in theater and at home.

Like when the 4th's fleet of F-15s was grounded by the Air Force after an
F-15C crash, and maintainers worked "tirelessly" to ensure each aircraft -- and by extension, its crew -- was safe.

"They are definitely at the top of their game," he said. "I mean, these guys are in their early 20s and they are out there
working on these jets. That, in itself, is
pretty amazing."

So when you see an airman driving away from the Seymour Johnson gate during your early-morning commute, remember that a smile or wave might just be what he or she needs to recharge.

After all, the majority of the 4th's daily air power mission is theirs -- no matter the time or temperature.

When those jets hit the flight line, a process begins that does not reach its end until just after sunrise the next day.

Yes, maintainers are a special breed, Northrup said.

Without them, the Strike Eagle would merely be an expensive piece of metal.