Diverse AFE mission challenges airmen, protects lives

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NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev.—Six-foot-high wooden lockers line the aircrew fitting room, quiet in the early morning. Inside each locker a collection of helmets, antigravity suits, oxygen connectors and other life-saving flight equipment sits ready for the daily preflight inspection.

Soon, a U.S. Air Force Weapons School aircrew flight equipment specialist will ensure each item meets high standards for safety and survivability. The aircrew relies on this specialist to know that different configurations require specialized equipment. They trust this person with their lives.

The AFE section of the USAFWS is up to the challenge of a unique mission that requires them to know about and handle equipment for many different types of aircraft.

“I think people tend to underestimate the Weapons School’s workload, which I’ve heard is the busiest AFE shop on Nellis,” said Senior Airman Aaron Faulkner, an AFE specialist assigned to the 57th Weapons Support Squadron. “We have 12 assigned sets [lockers] to inspect at the beginning of each day. Most other units don’t have that many. For example, some units on Nellis have only nine per week.”

Five of the 11 USAFWS squadrons located at Nellis share just one AFE section for support. These five squadrons fly six mission design series ranging from the A-10 Thunderbolt II to the F-22A Raptor. Each series requires a different set of AFE equipment, which the AFE personnel must be able to maintain.

“Every single day, we work on the F-15s, F-16s, F-22s and the A-10s,” said Faulkner. “We have to touch all of that gear. Some of it is the same, but a lot of it is different. We have to use the TOs [technical orders] to ensure we know the exact specifications for the equipment we’re working on.”

“At my last shop, they only flew helicopters, so I had five relevant TOs that I used, which were each about two or three pages long,” Faulkner added. “Here at the Weapons School, I use seven TOs on a daily basis that are each about 10 pages long.”

To show the differences in equipment inventory, Master Sgt. Amie Edades, 57th WPSS superintendent of AFE, compared the school’s inventory to her prior assignment at a flying squadron.

“At my previous base, the AFE shop had about 90 pegs [lockers] we had to maintain,” said Edades. “Here at the Weapons School, we maintain AFE equipment for 145 pegs, and we have recently requested more lockers to build our total up to 210 to accommodate the growth of the school. And, that new number doesn’t include the 40 pegs we’ll need when the F-35 course begins.”

The additional lockers are needed because the USAFWS will soon begin new courses, adding the F-35A Lightning II and the HC-130J Combat King II to its repertoire of aircraft. The AFE section plans to adjust to the addition of these courses with a satellite office.

Other USAFWS squadrons plan to increase the number of personnel in their courses, which also translates to a greater demand for AFE equipment. In addition, the section’s workload increases when other organizations come to Nellis to support the USAFWS. The AFE section supports these visiting units with parts and services, if requested.

“Every class, we have guest flyers who show up, and they need to borrow lockers and equipment,” said Edades.

The ability to handle such diverse equipment evolves from on-the-job training the AFE section provides to supplement an airman’s technical school training.

“Our shop tends to receive more airmen straight out of tech school than any other AFE section on Nellis,” said Edades. “These airmen are not only new to the AFE career field but also to the Air Force. Getting them up to speed in a busy AFE shop like the Weapons School’s is especially challenging.”

The challenges of handling various types of equipment at the USAFWS are offset by many positive aspects. For instance, working with the students teaches AFE personnel to be patient and diplomatic.

AFE personnel strive to take unsafe or inoperable equipment from students and turn it around quickly because they understand students are dealing with rigorous academic deadlines and intense flying schedules.

“The students are in a hurry and need us to do things in a small amount of time,” said Faulkner. “We kind of have to step up to do the same thing to keep up with their pace.”

“Our goal is to try to figure out what’s wrong, get it fixed, and give the equipment back to the students as fast as we can, so we can try to make their day just a little bit better,” said Edades.

“Our daily preflight and postflight checks help to find broken equipment and prevent it from being condemned, which means the member can’t use the piece of equipment for safety reasons,” added Edades.

Handling such a diverse amount of AFE equipment on a daily basis also helps airmen in promotion testing, when they can expect questions on multiple types of equipment. They gain a better recognition of the equipment and awareness of the TO requirements.

“This diversity of equipment that our younger personnel deal with here and the experiences they get to have help when they move on to other AFE shops that are smaller,” said Edades. “They have the confidence to handle whatever they face.”

“After working with all the different aircraft at the Weapons School, our airmen have a leg up on other AFE personnel who may have handled only one type of aircraft,” added Edades.

Being able to learn about a wide range of AFE equipment is something Faulkner says he enjoys and is an attractive feature about the USAFWS for those in his career field.

“The best thing is the variety. Since we work on just about all types of nonheavy aircraft, it makes us proficient at our jobs,” said Faulkner.

Finally, working at the USAFWS fosters good time management skills in AFE personnel. They not only have to perform the daily work but also respond to frequent requests for immediate service.

“Today, for example, an F-22 pilot flew, and the zipper blew out on the leg of his G-suit during the flight,” said Faulkner. “He was fine, but we had to replace the entire zipper right away before his next flight. You learn to manage your day and get your work done because you never know what will come up.”

“Working here definitely helps airmen learn to manage and organize their work better,” said Edades. “If they can keep track of all the equipment we handle here, they can do the same in any shop they’ll work in.”

USAFWS aircrew members can trust that, when the day begins in the fitting room tomorrow, a qualified AFE specialist will stand ready at their lockers.

“The AFE section is an amazing team dedicated to perfecting our life support systems for the ‘just in case’ moment should it tragically arrive,” said Lt. Col. David Stamps, 57 WPSS commander. “The entire Weapons School is extremely grateful.”