By Senior Airman Matthew Lotz, 31st Fighter Wing Public Affairs / Published August 22, 2014
Airman 1st Class Alixandra Druckenmiller inspects the cords to an ACES II parachute, Aug. 19, 2014, at Aviano Air Base, Italy. The day-to-day equipment pilots need such as helmet and harness are inspected every day, while most of the equipment installed inside the jet can be inspected monthly or annually. Druckenmiller is a 31st Operations Support Squadron aircrew flight equipment technician. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Matthew Lotz)
Airman 1st Class Jonathan Greene rebuilds a pilot’s MBU 20-P mask, Aug. 19, 2014, at Aviano Air Base, Italy. AFE Airmen are responsible for all the pilots’ equipment they carry as well as the equipment that is installed inside the aircraft. Greene is a 31st Operations Support Squadron aircrew flight equipment technician. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Matthew Lotz)
Airman 1st Class Jonathan Greene repairs a pilot’s lip light on an MBU 20-P mask, Aug. 19, 2014, at Aviano Air Base, Italy. The lip light turns on when a pilot presses it with his tongue inside the mask, allowing the pilot to light-up the cockpit and see dark areas during night operations. Greene is a 31st Operations Support Squadron aircrew flight equipment technician. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Matthew Lotz)
AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy (AFNS) --
The 31st Operations Support Squadron's aircrew flight equipment flight here is responsible for all of a pilot's flight equipment such as helmet, oxygen mask, harness and all life-saving equipment.
Their motto, "When everything else fails, we are the last ones to let them down," is painted along the wall of the shop, reminding the Airmen who work there of what is at stake.
"Our mission is to make sure the pilots come back safe and sound," said Senior Airman Darien Hackett a 31st OSS AFE technician. "The pilot trusts us with their lives, it's a tremendous feeling. You have to be confident of what you are doing."
The 11-Airmen flight attached to the 510th Fighter Squadron is broken down to two shops. One prepares pilots' helmets, head-up displays, suits, radios and harnesses. The other shop packs parachutes, life preservers and survival kits, which includes 10-15 different tools.
"We are split into two different shops to help manage all of our pilots' day-to-day equipment, and also, the tools needed for survival that we hope they never have to use," said Airman 1st Class Bradley Byrne, a 31st OSS AFE technician. "God forbid something happens and the pilot has to eject -- we are the last to let him down."
According to Capt. Matthew Zenishek, a 510th Fighter Squadron pilot, it's important to establish a great rapport with the AFE Airmen.
"These Airmen are essential to our flying mission, but more importantly to me and the rest of the pilots," Zenishek said. "Safety is paramount and when we step to our jets, all our equipment is ready to go for us and in great working order. Anytime we have issues with our equipment, they have no problem dropping what they are doing to help us."
Before a pilot can step to his jet, he must go through an AFE-conducted preflight check to ensure all their equipment is in working order.
"It's important for the equipment to be checked before they step to ensure everything is working properly," said Senior Airman Matthew Brillion, a 31st OSS AFE technician. "This is the stuff they need up there and the equipment that will save their life."
According to Hackett, who packs the life-saving equipment, if the pilot has to eject from an aircraft, once he has cleared the canopy and the parachute opens, two things can happen.
"When the pilot hits the water after about four seconds, the life raft that is installed underneath the seat is automatically opened," Hackett said. "He then can pull himself into the raft."
Hackett said if the pilot is unconscious though, the life preserver on his survival vest will inflate. Whichever occurs, there is a beacon in the kit that is going off and being relayed back to the base to help find the downed pilot as quickly as possible.
Recently, some of the 510th FS pilots were able to participate in Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, which allows the pilots to train with allied forces in a peacetime "battlefield." AFE Airmen accompany the pilots during temporary duty missions and training to continue building upon the trust between a technician and pilot.
"Inspecting a pilots' equipment could easily be done with another AFE crew, but it gives us pride knowing that they trust us and want us to do it," Byrne said. "Most of the time, wherever there is a pilot, there is aircrew flight equipment Airmen."
These prideful Airmen take their job very seriously, and in return, allow for a personal relationship that shows them another side of the people they help protect.
"I wasn't expecting a job like this or the connections you make with the pilots, but after talking with them and getting to know them as much more than a boss, it's very rewarding and helps your work ethic," Byrne said. "We build that relationship with that person to ensure that if they do eject, they will make it safely on the ground, and come home to shake your hand and say thank you."