Ammo, maintenance and pilots: how a strike mission is accomplished

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Three F-35 Lightning IIs, from the 63rd Fighter Squadron, and an F-16 Fighting Falcon, from the 309th Fighter Squadron, fly in formation alongside a KC-135 Stratotanker, from the 161st Air Refueling Wing, during a refueling mission near Phoenix Aug. 27, 2019. Six F-35s from the 63rd FS competed in Exercise Pather Beast where the pilots tested their munition dropping accuracy. (Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Leala Marquez)

From start to finish, many Airmen contribute to the success of an F-35A Lightning II strike mission.

Mission success depends on a smooth transition from every required task from building bombs to maintaining the jets to flying them. For a strike mission, the whole process starts with building the munitions.

“There’s a lot of prep work that goes into building a munition,” said Staff Sgt. Noah Dankocsik, 56th Equipment Maintenance Squadron conventional maintenance crew chief at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. “It requires reading through multiple steps in our technical data to properly putting it together. To build munitions, you have to put on tails and noses, and you have the bomb body itself to prepare.”

Once munitions are built they are put on a trailer and the Airmen from the line delivery section pull the trailers of bombs to the flightline to transfer to the weapons load crews. Weapons then take those bombs and load them onto the jets, Dankocsik said.

In addition to having the weapons loaded, F-35s are inspected and prepped for flight.

Senior Airman Tyler Salter, 56th Equipment Maintenance Squadron conventional maintenance crew chief, inspects a GBU-12, an aerial laser-guided munition, Aug. 24, 2019, at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. The 56th EMS assembled over 24 inert GBU-12s as part of the Panther Beast competition, where F-35A Lighting II pilots faced off to test their accuracy in dropping munitions. (Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Jacob Wongwai)

“Our crew chiefs perform Before Operation Servicing (BOS) inspections to ensure aircraft are serviced and ready for flight,” said Master Sgt. Micheal Whitehead, 63rd Aircraft Maintenance Unit (AMU) F-35 lead production superintendent. “Crew chiefs, avionics, weapons, Autonomic Logistics Information System expediters will then review aircraft forms and clear any discrepancies. The production superintendent will perform a forms review and a walk around of the aircraft, (prior to) releasing it for flight.”

Recently, all the cohesion and cooperation between these units came together Aug. 27 during the ‘Panther Beast’ 63rd Fighter Squadron competition.

Competing pilots flew 50 miles to acquire and destroy 6 to 12 targets over a 45-minute period in hopes of becoming the winners of ‘Panther Beast’, said Lt. Col. Curtis Dougherty, 63rd Fighter Squadron commander.

“After landing, the tape review will reveal the truth, and we’ll celebrate the victors at a fighter squadron and aircraft maintenance unit awards ceremony,” said Dougherty.

Staff Sgt. Noah Dankocsik, 56th Equipment Maintenance Squadron conventional maintenance crew chief, looks for parts Aug. 23, 2019, at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. Dankocisk was part of a team that assembled more than 24 inert GBU-12s, aerial laser-guided munitions, during the Panther Beast competition. (Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Aspen Reid)

Airmen from multiple units worked together to build the munitions used, maintain the aircraft and fly the jets. Dougherty said it was their cooperation that made the competition possible.

“The work started weeks before weapons hit targets,” he said. “Our AMU has been hard at work loading aircraft with external pylons that we’ve never flown with before at Luke. Ammo has spent countless hours building more weapons than we’ve ever dropped in this squadron’s history. The pilots have spent that time planning: determining which targets and attacks will challenge the squadron’s instructors and ensuring everyone has the knowledge requisite to succeed. On the day of the mission, it all comes together.”

While the competition is a special event, maintenance, ammo and pilots work together to perform these tasks frequently. Dougherty said, it’s this synergy that allows our Air Force to be an effective fighting force.

“To succeed, we rely on the world’s finest maintenance professionals to care about the small details so that all of the critical aircraft systems work at their peak capability and weapons function the way they were intended,” he added. “We ask our pilots to prepare and brief with diligence to be ready to execute at the highest levels. The team environment and esprit de corps that extends across our aircraft maintenance unit and fighter squadron inspires the finest our Airmen have to offer.”
 

Airmen assigned to the 56th Equipment Maintenance Squadron, inspect a row of munitions Aug. 23, 2019, at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. Airmen assembled and deployed more than 24 inert munitions for the Panther Beast competition, where F-35A Lighting II pilots faced off to test their accuracy in dropping munitions. (Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Aspen Reid)

 
A KC-135 Stratotanker, assigned to the Arizona Air National Guard, 161st Air Fueling Wing, refuels an F-35A Lighting II, assigned to the 63rd Fighter Squadron, at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., Aug. 27, 2019, near Phoenix. Pilots from the 63rd FS faced-off in the Panther Beast competition in which they flew 50 miles to acquire and destroy 6 to 12 targets over a 45-minute period. (Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Leala Marquez)

 
Three F-35A Lighting IIs, assigned to the 63rd Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., fly in formation during a refueling mission Aug. 27, 2019, near Phoenix. A KC-135 Stratotanker, assigned to the Arizona Air National Guard, 161st Fueling Wing, refueled six F-35s. During a refueling mission, the boom operator extends the boom to make contact with the aircraft and once in contact, fuel is pumped through the boom to the aircraft. (Air Force photograph by Airman Brooke Moeder)