Ross Magedoff grew up watching the Navyâ€™s Blue Angels and Air Forceâ€™s Thunderbirds perform at air shows thinking, â€˜Itâ€™s amazing what they do; thatâ€™s something I may want to do one day.â€™
Little did he know, the now Airman first classâ€™s career would take him to the exact jet the Thunderbirds, the Air Forceâ€™s Aerial Demonstration Team, use â€“ the F-16 Fighting Falcon. It would also send him to Luke Air Force Base, the Thunderbirdsâ€™ birthplace.
He would also find a career where heâ€™s essential to making the jet fly. Heâ€™s now a crew chief, the aircraft manager responsible for making sure everything on their assigned jet is set and safe to fly.
â€œLike all other crew chiefs, I started out at Lackland AFB, Texas, for basic military training, then moved across the state to Sheppard AFB,â€ said Magedoff, Detachment 12, 372nd Training Squadron Tactical Aircraft Maintenance specialist. â€œThe five months at Sheppard included â€˜coldâ€™ training, learning the â€˜ins and outsâ€™ of the jet. We worked on F-16s, but theyâ€™re decommissioned, and theyâ€™re not flying actual missions. Theyâ€™re for training.â€
Det. 12 on Luke trains every one of the Air Forceâ€™s F-16 crew chiefs to certify and lead a team assigned to making sure a jet is able to fly safely on time. That brought Magedoff, a Palm Beach, Fla., native and reservist from Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., to Arizona. Lukeâ€™s four-week course is the hands-on capstone event of crew chief certification and training.
â€œWe throw them into it right away because we only have 20 academic days of training,â€ said Tech. Sgt. Shawn Manning, 372nd TRS, Det. 12 A Flight chief and instructor. â€œThe first day involves an overview on simulated cockpits in a classroom, but we move to the actual hangars the next couple of days going over airframe inspections. The students will certify on the inspections, then we show them how to launch and recover a jet before and after a flight. Then weâ€™ll add other objectives to include getting oil samples and how to refuel the F-16. We donâ€™t throw everything at them at once, we gradually build them up. Itâ€™s a building block type process.â€
The â€˜hotâ€™ part of the training means the students are working hands on with F-16s that fly real missions in one of Lukeâ€™s six fighter squadrons. The jets are real, not decommissioned, and the flights the pilots fly are part of their daily missions. Magedoff said the reality of the training is what he and his fellow students like most about their time at Luke. All of this training though is done under the eyes of experienced instructors like Manning, whoâ€™s spent 13 years working on the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Launching a jet involves making sure the aircraft is ready for the mission, including weapons and fuel, among other items, then using the radios and hand signals to let the pilot know where and when to go for takeoff. Recovering a jet involves marshalling the aircraft back to its parking space and running through the post-flight checklists. Refueling is the same as putting gas in a car, except itâ€™s a more involved process taking more than one person to do it and extra steps are involved.
â€œMy first day I was very nervous because I was on a running aircraft and talking to a pilot for the first time,â€ Magedoff said. â€œIt was more excitement than nervousness though. That first launch youâ€™re pretty nervous. By the time you get to your fourth launch youâ€™re all set, and now I go through it with confidence.â€
Manning said seeing the students undergo that change during their four weeks at Luke is one of the most rewarding parts of his job.
â€œWhen theyâ€™re out there for their first or second launch on day three, itâ€™s like night and day from then to when you see them on day 20,â€ Manning said. â€œThat confidence and the knowledge they gain in those days, you canâ€™t match in the civilian world. Itâ€™s fun as an instructor when you see that proverbial light bulb go off. Thatâ€™s when for me as an instructor, I know all my training up to this point, is being passed on to the students and theyâ€™re understanding it. Thatâ€™s probably the best sense of accomplishment.â€
When the students work on F-16s during their time in Det. 12, they work on jets certified pilots will fly. Luke also trains the majority of new F-16 pilots as well, but for safety reasons, student pilots and student crew chiefs donâ€™t work together.
However, it isnâ€™t long before the student crew chiefs graduate and take those reigns.
â€œAs an A1C youâ€™ll be in control of the aircraft,â€ Manning said. â€œYou will have the power to say, â€˜Hold on a second, something doesnâ€™t look right here.â€™ Then get the proper expert out there to look at a specific part of the jet. You will be 18, 19 or 20-years old in control of not just the multimillion dollar aircraft, but the lives at stake.â€
An Air Force fact sheet on the Fighting Falcon says an F-16 in 1998 cost $18.8 million for a two seat model. Each of Lukeâ€™s crew chiefs are responsible for at least that much money in Air Force assets each day at work, not counting the tools and fuel theyâ€™ll work with as well.
Det. 12 taught just under 600 of the maintainers annually going back through 2010. Trainers like Manning have instructed more than 10,000 crew chiefs since the program at Luke started in 1994, according to figures provided by detachment leadership.
Magedoffâ€™s predecessors have used their new skills all over the world too. Manningâ€™s career includes assignments in Italy, New Mexico and Arizona while his deployed experiences involved stops in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq.
â€œOur job really hits home when you deploy,â€ Manning said. â€œIf at the end of the runway, you see an aircraft loaded with weapons and bombs and it takes off and comes back empty, you know it did something. You had a hand in that. As a maintainer, you have a huge part in doing the Air Forceâ€™s daily mission.â€