F-16 Fighting Falcons win four-ship load crew competition in landslide

Reserve Citizen Airmen from 944th Fighter Wing held it’s first-ever four-ship load crew competition Jun. 5, at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.

The 944th FW is unique in the fact that they train on four different airframes: the F-35 Lightning II, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the F-15E Strike Eagle, and the A-10 Thunderbolt II. Two of these four aircraft are geographically separated from the wing.

“The fact that we were able to get all four aircraft here was awesome. It’s something that no other wing can do and it is a tremendous source of pride for all of us,” said Col. (ret) Jim Greenwald, former 944th FW commander.

Reserve Citizen Airmen from 944th Fighter Wing held the first-ever four-ship load crew competition June 5, 2021, at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. As part of the competition each three-man load crew team completed a written test, had a uniform inspection, and then demonstrated their ability to arm their respective aircraft with GBU -12ís and 9Xís. The 944th Aircraft Maintenance F-16 Fighting Falcon weapons load crew took home the trophy and bragging rights with a zero safety, perfect load.(Air Force photograph by Tech. Sgt. Courtney Richardson)

Being able to get these airframes in one place to hold the competition was a challenge one Chief was happy to take on.

“I’ve always wanted to do this but I didn’t think we would be able to get this competition off the ground,” said Chief Master Sgt. Ralph Thompson, 944th Maintenance Squadron weapons manager. “After planting the seed and asking the question, Col. Greenwald and Col. [Scott] Briese reached back out and said ëit’s going to happen, so start planning.’ It would have never gotten off the ground without their support.”

Thompson immediately began searching for the right people to bring in on the conversation and work through the logistics of pulling this off in the fairest way possible. Being that he works with the crews of the F-35 and F-16, he sought assistance from the F-15 and A-10 Airmen.

“The 924th Fighter Group and the 414th Fighter Group brought some of their members to sit down and go over the ground rules,” Thompson said. “We had to find the right weapons system that all of these airframes carry which is why we went with the GBU-12 and 9X.”

Another hiccup that the team needed to figure out was who the evaluators would be.

“For every member of the load crew team there is an evaluator, so we needed 12 evaluators,” Thompson said. “The challenge is that all of the evaluators need to have background in the aircraft they are inspecting, which is where the 56th Fighter Wing came in.”

The 56th Maintenance Squadron stepped up to help facilitate the execution of this competition.

“They were willing to come in and assist with the majority of the evaluation,” Thompson said. “It turned out really nice because they are a third-party and weren’t biased to any of the teams or air frames.”

After getting the administrative side nailed down, the teams arrived ready to fight for bragging rights.

“This is definitely not the run-of-the-mill thing we do,” said Tech. Sgt. Aaron Atkins, 924th Aircraft Maintenance Group, A-10 Thunderbolt II weapons load crew chief from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. “I like to push myself because this is like a test to see how fast, safe, and correctly we load munitions but I’ve never done a load crew competition with other aircraft so this is a completely new experience for me.”

While all of the teams were gearing up, one of them was down a crew member so they reached out to an active-duty co-worker and he volunteered to help them compete.

“We work together all the time so when they asked me, I gladly said yes,” said Airman 1st Class Carlos Santini, 333rd Fighter Squadron weapons load crew member, from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. “The competition was tough but a great experience. I’ve never done anything like this before and now I can say that I was a part of the 944th Fighter Wing’s first four-ship load crew competition. Plus I got to see an A-10 up-close; that was cool.”

An F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-35 Lightning II, and an A-10 Thunderbolt II fly in a four-ship formation over Arizona after being refueled by an Arizona Air National Guard KC-135 Stratotanker from the 161st Air Refueling Wing, June 3, 2021. The 944th Fighter Wing is unique in the fact that they train pilots on four different airframes, with two of them being geographically separated from the unit. The F-15E is out of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., and the A-10 belongs to the 924th Fighter Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.(Air Force photograph by Tech. Sgt. Nestor Cruz)

As part of the competition each three-man load crew team completed a written test, had a uniform inspection, and then demonstrated their ability to arm their respective aircraft. Due to all of the traveling, Thompson replaced the typical tool box check with the Sharp Troop award which rated each member on their uniforms.

“We created an in-depth 944th Fighter Wing scoresheet and used that for all of the airframes,” Thompson said. “They start off with 1,000 points and points are earned and deducted from that.”

One team won by a landslide.

“These guys swept everything from the test to uniforms, and won the weapons load competition,” Thompson said. “Out of a possible 1,000 points they got 1,062. So, 944th AMXS F-16 load crew come and get your trophy.”

This team had a zero safety, perfect load. That means they performed their munitions load perfectly according to their technical order without any safety concerns for themselves, the aircraft, or the bombs they were loading. They earned extra points by finishing faster and exceeding expectations in other areas.

“I knew we were going to be good because we practiced so we felt confident about our chances, but I didn’t expect for us to have a perfect load,” said Senior Airman Jonathan Olea, 944th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons load crew member.

The 944th AMXS F-35 Lightning II weapons load crew team came in second place.

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