It’s 6 a.m. when I meet the maintenance crew of the United States Air Force (USAF) F-15 Eagle fighter jet from Eglin Air Force Base (AFB), Fla. The launch is at 9 a.m. and the guys of 58 Air Maintenance Unit (AMU) must begin working on the aircraft about three hours beforehand.
I am greeted by Lieutenant Langan and he escorts me onto the flight line to meet up with Sergeant Neil Ransom, crew chief, and Airman 1st class (A1C) Malerny, engine troop by trade but now a B-man (he basically makes sure the jets are safe).
Today we’re crewing one of the 16 jets brought up to participate in period two of the international fighter showcase, Exercise Maple Flag 41 held at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alta. This particular jet has two green stars on it from the time it shot down two enemy aircraft during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq.
Both Sgt Ransom and A1C Malerny trained at Sheppard AFB, Tex. For A1C Malerny his training was a five month crash course. “You’re in it right away,” he says, “they don’t waste any time”. The Canton, Ohio native joined the military in search of adventure. Has he found it? “Well, I’m in Canada,” he laughs.
To become a crew chief Sgt Ransom trained for seven months. “It takes 25 man-hours to produce one flying hour for one jet,” says Lt Langan, “And there are a couple of dozen guys behind the scenes for every guy out on the flight line”. Despite the long hours the guys love what they do. “ I like being a maintainer for a reason,” says A1C Malerny, “I like getting my hands dirty”.
The guys do their walk-around the aircraft and soon the weapons loaders show up. I speak to a few of them and manage to find a rare specimen out on the flight line – a woman! Airman Christie Major, a weapons loader, is like many other participants in that it is her first Maple Flag.
“It’s definitely cold… but I like the work that’s going on,” she says as the crew loads their weapons.
We participate in a Foreign Object Damage (FOD) walk to make sure that the runway is safe for take-off. “We’re all about safety,” A1C Malerny says. They start the engines (about a half-hour before the launch) and wait for the pilot to show up. Once he does there are more checks and Sgt Ransom talks directly to the pilot.
After some minor setbacks the jet is launched. There is not much to do but wait until the jet comes back in about an hour. I ask the two guys what the best and the worst part of their job is.
“I don’t like being inside doing paperwork,” he says and A1C Malerny agrees.
“Forms are the worst.” Like Sgt Ransom, A1C Malerny loves being outside and getting his hands dirty, and the way he describes it he has the best job in the world. “Look at that thing,” he says, pointing to the F-15 in awe. “How many people can say that they work on a 30 million dollar aircraft that goes out and shoots other things out of the sky?”
“I love what I do. There’re not many people who can say that,” says Sgt Ransom.