Equipment maintainers keep jets viable

Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. — Imagine driving your car down the freeway. You are halfway to the destination with only four hours left to drive when the check engine light comes on, a tire blows and the car begins to overheat. You pull over and look at your phone, which has no signal, and then you look in front of and behind you. There is nothing in either direction as far as you can see. You think to yourself, “I probably should have had my car checked out before taking such a long drive.”

Staff Sgt. Audry Palowski, 56th EMS wheel and tire team member, stacks a worn wheel for recycling.

The 56th Equipment Maintenance Squadron Maintenance Flight has a team that ensures the aircraft at Luke Air Force Base are ready for the mission, so they don’t end up like the car in our scenario.

Two sections make up the maintenance flight: inspection, and wheel and tire.

“The wheel and tire section is responsible for disassembling, inspecting, repairing, assembling and servicing wheels for 43 F-35 Lightning II aircraft and 71 F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft,” said Tech. Sgt. Derek Doiron, 56th EMS wheel and tire section NCO in charge. “We also inspect and repack grease in all wheel bearings and coordinate with the 56th Logistics Readiness Squadron to maintain a forward supply of F-16 wheels for Luke and a global supply point for the entire F-35 program.”

Staff Sgt. Lenard Patterson, 56th EMS inspection section team member, inspects the emergency power unit hydrazine tank.

While maintenance flight back shops can be a welcome change of pace for crew chiefs, who spend much of their time on the sizzling Arizona flightline, they are not without tests.

“One of our challenges has been accomplishing maintenance on both F-16 and F-35 wheels concurrently without sacrificing efficiency on either platform,” Doiron said. “We basically had to write the procedures of how to maintain F-35 wheels from scratch. Then we had to get those approved not only by the maintenance group and fighter wing, but also by Lockheed Martin and the joint program office as well.”

While maintaining wheels and tires can be a challenge, the inspection section is a job that requires equal skill and dedication.

Senior Airman Brandon Culbreath, 56th EMS wheel and tire team member, labels a tire to indicate it has been torqued in accordance with technical data.

“Our main role is to thoroughly inspect aircraft for discrepancies, fix them and ops check all major systems and subsystems,” said Staff Sgt. Lenard Patterson, 56th EMS inspection section team member. “The phase process is essential to both Luke and the Air Force mission because, quite literally, without it the jets would eventually fall apart and break down. We are a preventative step in preserving our fleet of aircraft and extending their operational time.”

The biggest challenge for the inspection section is staying on schedule, he said.

“Most people are surprised at how in depth our inspection gets,” Patterson said. “We remove a large portion of the aircraft’s ‘skin’ exposing all the ‘innards,’ and that’s something most people don’t get to see. We also have to troubleshoot problems we may find, and that can make staying on schedule difficult at times.”   

Staff Sgt. Nicholas Ensminger, 56th EMS inspection team member, inspects the hydraulic lines on an F-16 landing gear subsystem.

Both the wheel and tire as well as the inspection section are critical pieces to the puzzle that keeps Luke jets in the air and allows Luke to train the world’s greatest F-35 and F-16 fighter pilots.

“There is a 0-percent chance of the flightline maintaining operations without our flight,” Doiron said. “The inspection section provides the available hours for the F-16 to keep flying well past their designed life span and it is certainly impossible for an aircraft to get in the air without wheels on it.”


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