TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – The pilot tensed up as he turned in for his final approach. The runway was completely dark. The sun that had been leading their flight and offering them much-needed visibility had since set, and the suffocating blackness the new night offered made their descent feel as if they were lowering themselves deeper and deeper into the yawning mouth of some terrible monster.
In his ear, the frantic directions of the traffic controllers rang ever louder and more dire the lower his altimeter read. He could feel the slickness of his palms against the plane’s control wheel, making each slight adjustment less reliable and prone to error. He took a quick moment to look down and dry his hands on his flight suit. By the time he looked back up, the sky had lit up with a firework display of enemy munitions. A cacophony of small-arms fire pitter-pattered against the underside of the aircraft’s hull as the wheel lurched sharply left, indicating an engine failure.
While made-up, this kind of situation is likely what U.S. Air Force pilots would face were they deprived of a vital component of flying missions: Aircrew Flight Equipment personnel.
AFE flights have the important mission of keeping the tools used during missions operational and in good condition.
As the AFE flight commander at Travis AFB, though, Capt. Justin Poole knows his team is only ever one bad equipment check away from making a nightmare scenario a reality. His flight, like all AFE flights, knows that inaccuracy can be fatal.
This past May, Poole was given the opportunity to see the operational importance of the flight’s mission firsthand.
“When I was deployed to Afghanistan, we had to depart a short field with night vision goggles in high terrain,” he said. “Departures are always very busy because you make multiple radio swaps and calls, you’re backing up the pilot and looking for threats. When all of this has to be done in complete darkness, though, it really drives home what AFE does for the mission. Keeping NVGs on hand and operational means allowing everyone to see terrain, thunderstorms and threats much easier, and that’s a huge comfort when you’re operating in a place that might not be too friendly.”
It’s in that way, AFE ensures Travis crews not only survive in their areas of responsibility, but also thrives in them.
“AFE enhances lethality and survivability of aircrew and the aircraft,” Poole said. “We’re responsible for keeping vital features of the aircraft operational. When an aircraft needs to deploy rafts or slides in the event of a water landing or if parachutes need to be packed or a pilot needs to see during low-light landing and take-off operations, that’s all on us.”
Accountability is a mainstay in the AFE flight’s culture. The work of each day lends itself to the next day’s motivation; a challenge to always be better, sharper. It’s by no accident, then, that a by-product of that culture is just a little bit of a swagger.
“The last to let you down.” AFE’s slogan is a promise to the aircrew who depend on them and the equipment they touch every day, and it’s because of the hard work of AFE Airmen that aircrew are able to do that, said Senior Airman Uriel Medina, 60th Operations Support Squadron AFE technician.
Despite Medina being relatively new to the career field, it’s taken no time for him to understand what kind of weight is placed on the work he does.
“If any of our equipment were to malfunction during a flight or during a load-up in a dangerous environment, then not only would the lives of the pilots be in danger, but so would the lives of the rest of the crew including loadmasters, trafficking personnel and any passengers,” he said. “The equipment we work on is the type that if it fails, people die. We all work with that in mind.”
For Medina, it’s not just the pressure of keeping Airmen alive that emboldens his work ethic, but the fact that other Airmen depend on him to do their jobs.
“It’s cyclical,” he said. “AFE represents just one link in the chain, but knowing that all these other Airmen comprise all the other links inspires me to make the one link I’m responsible for as strong as it can be.”
Just like a weak link can break a chain, a poorly executed AFE check can turn a mission into a catastrophe, but according to Medina, a hypothetical engine failure will always stay hypothetical as long as he and his team are there to give mission equipment the green light.