Before every flight takes off, before every pilot steps in an aircraft and even before a student arrives at Luke Air Force Base, a team of professionals makes sure they will be as safe as possible.
The men and women of three of 56th Operations Support Squadron sections are dedicated to this mission — the aircrew helmet section, parachute section and the survival pack section.
“The primary mission of the aircrew helmet section is to ensure that instructor pilots and students have the necessary helmet-mounted devices to perform their mission,” said Staff Sgt. Renee Converse, 56th OSS Aircrew Flight Equipment craftsman.
The helmet section covers everything that can attach to the helmet, including the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing Systems, night vision goggles and CRU-60s, which are oxygen supply adapters. The NVGs and CRU-60s are quick and can be handled in about 15 minutes; the JHMCS, however, take much longer.
“JHMCS fittings are the most time consuming,” Converse said. “On average it takes two hours to properly fit the helmet, mask and custom visor to the pilot. To build up a JHMCS helmet before the fitting takes 30 to 45 minutes, and to fit someone with a regular 55/P fighter helmet takes 60 to 90 minutes.”
To get the helmet right the members of the section must drill, glue, size, install and cure the helmet. Once complete the helmet is given to the pilot for whom it was fitted.
“Most people don’t know that the entire JHMCS helmet assembly costs $150,000,” Converse said. “This includes the JHMCS helmet, upper helmet vehicle interface, display unit and visor. It’s quite unnerving when you first start working on it because one tiny scratch makes a $2,000 to $4,000 visor worthless.”
The helmet can keep a pilots head from injury and keep their oxygen mask and radio on. But if there is a serious aircraft incident the parachute team becomes the pilot’s best friend.
“The primary mission of the parachute section is to inspect, repair, maintain and pack parachute systems,” said Staff Sgt. Marianne Hebreo, 56th OSS Aircrew Flight Equipment craftsman. “We have the Advanced Concept Ejection Seat parachutes for pilot recovery and the drogue parachutes, which stabilize the seat after an ejection.”
Parachutes are put together at the Aircrew Flight Equipment section and the installation of equipment is completed by the emergency global rescue, escape and survival systems section.
“These parachutes are essential to the survival of the aircrew if they have to eject,” Hebreo said. “Those stationed at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., also handle a U-2 pilot’s full pressure suit, which is similar to those used by astronauts. Every installation requires familiarization with new equipment depending on the airframe such as fighters, C-40 passenger planes, cargo jets, bombers and helicopters.”
After using the parachute the last section’s efforts come to the aid of the pilots.
“The primary mission of the survival pack section is to ensure the safety of our F-16 fighter pilots,” said Staff Sgt. Andrew Mallumaci, 56th OSS Aircrew Flight Equipment craftsman. “We oversee advanced concept egress systems survival kits, one-man life rafts and life preservers.”
The survival kits include more than 20 survival items including: survival radio for communication, smoke signal flares, tourniquet, bags of water, survival and combat blankets, survival knife, flashlight, signal mirror, sea dye marker, whistle, medical kit, and a sleeping bag for cold-weather climates.
“Every kit contains a URT-44 beacon located on the outside,” Mallumaci said. “It sends a signal to help locate the pilot and aircraft. The one-man life raft requires an annual leakage test to ensure serviceability and it’s also located inside the kit and will automatically inflate upon ejection from the aircraft. The life preservers require an annual inspection and repack and are worn when flying over water.”
It takes the section an entire day to properly inspect and repack the survival kit.
“It’s extremely vital that we follow each and every step in our technical order manuals,” Mallumaci said. “Attention to detail is a must and perfection is our only standard.”