MIGHTY TACTICAL
Airman 1st Class Pedro Tenorio

Here's how the Air Force keeps its biggest planes in the air

In a team, there's a leader, a lancer, the smart guy and the lovable big guy.

In the Air Force, it's the fighter jets, the stealth bombers, the drones and the cargo planes … except they aren't as beloved as the big guy.

Often overshadowed by their more aggressive, quicker and sleeker cousins, the fighter jets, the heavy aircraft are the airframes that carry the US Air Force and sister-service components, and it is about time they get the love they deserve.


Some people tend to think the Air Force is all about the pilots that bring the fight to the enemy and protect America's freedoms from the sky with sleek, supersonic fighter jets. They're not wrong, to a point. Fighter pilots in the Air Force do exactly that.

Crew chiefs with the 421st Aircraft Maintenance Unit work on an F35A Lightning II at Hill Air Force Base, in Utah, July 31, 2019.

(US Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

But just as an army marches on its stomach, an air force's mobility depends on the fleet of aircraft and maintainers to handle the logistics of troop and material movement. That is where the heavies and their crew come in.

Aircraft from the modern C-17 Globemaster III and the KC-46 Pegasus — the new kid on the block — to the venerable C-130 Hercules, B-52 Stratofortress, KC-135 Stratotanker and others play a massive role in the service's global operations, all with different purposes. Although one commonality they have is this — all of their crew chiefs start their careers with training at Sheppard AFB.

"For their first 23 days of training, its fundamentals," said Master Sgt. Jason Ricke, section chief for 362nd Training Squadron's Heavies Flight. "Fundamentals have a large focus. They learn a lot about fighters, heavies, some of the UAVs, bombers cargo, but if they're going to 135s, the 52, or 130s, they'll learn the specifics here [in the 362nd Training Squadron.]"

Ricke said students, whether coming in with some experience in mechanics or can't tell the difference between a wrench and a hammer, will learn the heavy maintainer lifestyle and comradery in the crew chief apprentice course.

C-130 crew chief apprentice students open the cargo door of a C-130 Hercules at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas, Nov. 20, 2018.

(US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Pedro Tenorio)

"A lot of people don't know what goes into being a crew chief specifically. It's a lot of hours and hard work," Tech. Sgt. Dennis Neville, 362nd Training Squadron Instructor Supervisor for the C-130 course, said. "We get students with a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Some of them who are excited to be here, some who don't know what they will be doing yet. That's something they'll pick up and go with once they get out on that flight line and once they see their aircraft fly for the first time."

Neville said there is no better feeling as a crew chief than seeing your aircraft leave with a pallet of supplies or a pallet of patients or even filled to the brim with bullets and bombs and watch it come back with nothing. Knowing that it completed its mission, but not without the help of the crew chiefs.

"Without the maintainers, and not just crew chiefs but maintainers in general, these aircraft don't fly or at least they aren't going to fly like they're supposed to," Neville said. "[The pilot] will have no guidance systems, no electrical systems, you definitely can't fly without your engines, you gotta have fuels as well, different shops maintain those systems without them, that aircraft would just sit there and people will just admire it from the ground and it'll never get to do its mission."

US Air Force crew chief trainees change a tire on a KC-10 Extender at Travis Air Force Base, California, Feb. 7, 2018.

(US Air Force photo by Heide Couch)

This mission to get these aircraft in the air is exemplified in the crew chiefs that must undergo months of training learning more than three volumes of information. Information pertaining to engine pylons, navigator positions, booms, loadmaster tasks and refueling missions, the crew chief will learn all these tasks, depending on their assigned airframe.

Crew chiefs are part of the maintenance force that ensure aircraft are airworthy and mission-ready so pilots can complete their various variety of missions.

Examples of the wide range of missions for the C-130, one of USAF's oldest and most reliable assets, can range from humanitarian missions, military supply runs to allies all over the world, transporting hardware like tanks for the Army, to being outfitted into a AC-130 "Spooky" gunship and going to battle with an array of weaponry to wreak havoc on the enemy.

The KC-135's mission is a bit more streamlined as it is about 300 gas stations with wings. Its mission is to refuel other aircraft during flight so they can continue their mission without landing.

B-52 crew chief apprentice course students install a drag chute onto a B-52 Stratofortress at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas, Nov. 19, 2018.

(US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Pedro Tenorio)

The B-52 is the oldest bomber in the Air Force inventory, having first begun flying in the 1950s. The fortress in the sky is able to fly long distances and carry around 70,000 pounds of mixed ordnance.

All these flying giants are sustained by crew chiefs that have trained at Sheppard. Ricke said the crew chief job, while daunting at times, because of the age of some aircraft in the fleet, is also rewarding because he works on aircraft and builds camaraderie with fellow maintainers. It's why he continues to put on the uniform.

"What our instructors instill the most within the students is the brotherhood and sisterhood between all maintainers," he said.

Ricke said everyone who joined the Air Force, right next to their personal reason, was a desire to be part of something bigger than themselves, a desire to be part of a team or a second family. He said being an Air Force maintainer is something a student, whether or not they specifically wanted the maintainer job, will learn to and hopefully become excited about being part of this important team of unsung heroes.

"That's probably the main things that really kept me around," he said. "You'll never make better friends than the ones you make in the military service. When it's easy and nice anyone can do the job, but when it gets tough and dirty that's when the best people show up and that's when best friends make it fun."

From left, Airman Greg Hogle, Airman 1st Class Daniel Miranda, Airman George Michael Singer III, and Airman Brycen Brooks, all B-52 crew chief apprentice course students, in a B-52 Stratofortress at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas, July 2, 2019.

(US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Pedro Tenorio)

Ricke said he tries to instill these values into the students who come through that while doing their job, know there's people who are there that can help pick up the slack as being a maintainer is a hard job. He and Neville also encourage students to try to become flying crew chiefs, a position that makes all the hardships seem worth it.

"The first time they get to do their first TDY when becoming a flying crew chief, that's really when it gets brought home and you get to see your part of this mission," Neville said. "The biggest thing is that drive and force, needs to remember, those pilots can't fly those without us and who doesn't want to fly over the world as a part of your job. There's great food all over the world."

Ricke said the same thing about flying crew chiefs being one of the more rewarding parts of the hard crew chief life and said whether the mission is a four to five day trip just dropping supplies or working on an military training exercise with the Army for two weeks, becoming a flying crew chief is a goal any new crew chief should strive for.

Many of the aircraft in the Air Force's heavies fleet will be on display at the SAFB Air Show this Oct. 26-27, showing off the often underappreciated heavy aircraft that are the base of our Air Force.

"For all our cargo aircraft, they will be opened up so people can walk through it, go in the flight deck, they can experience it all," Ricke said. "That's the thing for us, showing them one aspect of how this little thing makes all this move around, it's all just a piece of the puzzle and to show them that we don't just have fighters or bombers, they can learn about the cargo mission, the training mission."

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.