Aircrew flight equipment formula: Safety, training and camaraderie

  • Published
  • By By Airman 1st Class Keenan Berry
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
When pilots suit up and prepare for a mission, they have a lot on their minds - the long hours they will spend in the cockpit, various flight patterns and other mission objectives. With all these important demands on their attention, they need to know that their life-support equipment is ready to go in case of emergency. Thanks to the professionals of the 509th Operations Support Squadron aircrew flight equipment (AFE) shop, they have that assurance.

Pilots depend on the AFE team to ensure their equipment is working properly for any operation.

"We have to make sure the pilots are safe from the point of take-off to landing," said Master Sgt. Dennis Speicher, 509th OSS AFE shop chief. "We work on their helmets, communication systems and survival kits so they can focus on the mission. We also ensure their parachutes function properly in the event of an emergency. We make sure their safety is accounted for."

In the event of an emergency, pilots must rely on this equipment to survive.

To better ensure pilot's safety, AFE technicians constantly inspect and test helmets, communication systems and parachutes to verify that they are fully functional and ready for use, said Senior Airman Steven Lee, 509th OSS AFE technician.

"We perform 30-day inspections on the pilots' helmets by breaking down the masks and examining them to make sure they are not broken, cracked or scratched," said Lee. "We also clean the insides to make sure there are no germs or contaminants within the mask. They need the helmet to receive oxygen and to communicate with airfields."

The AFE team is required to repack the parachutes every year to ensure they work, and that there is no mold around the canopy, which can render the entire assembly unstable.
Another significant portion of the AFE career field is medical ops. Aircrew flight equipment techs not only have to make sure pilots' gear is functional; they also have to ensure it is sanitary. The masks pilots use in flight can easily become contaminated by pathogens in saliva or mucus, and if not dealt with, can present a serious health risk.

The AFE team must also be efficient when it comes to training in various areas, including medical logistics, supply, and other essential aspects.

Training is 90 percent of their mission, ensuring everyone is fully qualified to handle the different aspects of the career field.

"Every day we have someone in training," said Staff Sgt. Joshua Riffe, 509th OSS AFE NCO in charge. "We train on the equipment that we utilize, as well as supervise the Airmen and help them understand the equipment. Anything we touch, from parachutes to helmets, we train on. For equipment training, we do one-on-one sections by showing the trainee technical orders (TO) and guiding them step by step. As a trainee, it is their duty to retain the information and understand it."

Training times and strategies vary based on the type of equipment, and can range anywhere from two weeks to four months. For example, packing parachutes is a task impossible to perfect within a day; rather, proficiency on this task comes with time and practice.

"As a three-level, my duties are to fully comprehend all TOs and the Air Force instructions governing the career," said Airman 1st Class William Butler, 509th OSS AFE technician.

"Also, I look to learn how I can work more efficiently by adhering to the standards set before me."

It could take up to eight weeks or more to ensure a three-level no longer requires supervision on many tasks, said Speicher.

Airmen with their five-level are responsible for training and supervising three-levels and ensuring they are able to provide quality assistance in time of need, said Senior Airman Steven Honkala, 509th OSS AFE technician.

"We must be proficient in our jobs and guiding three-levels through steps regarding TOs on the equipment we deal with," said Honkala. "Seven-levels ensure we are trained and are doing our jobs to help three-levels progress. We are the 'middle man.' We make sure the mission gets done by remaining vigilant and following our TOs and AFIs, and ensuring pilots come home safely."

With constant training and safety assurance comes a sense of camaraderie between the pilots and the AFE team, said Honkala.

"What I enjoy about the career is the ability to form a bond between us and the pilots," said Honkala. "Seeing friends go out the door and come back is an uplifting feeling. Us doing what we do allows the pilots to come home safe."