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    Resilience of 163d maintainers lifts latest MQ-9s over California fires

    California Fires: Maintainers lift MQ-9s for wildfire missions

    Photo By Staff Sgt. Michelle Ulber | Members of the 163d Aircraft Maintenance Squadron,163d Attack Wing, California Air...... read more read more



    Story by Gregory Solman 

    163rd Attack Wing

    by Tech. Sgt. (CA) Gregory Solman
    163d Attack Wing Public Affairs

    MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. – Pressed into round-the-clock operations by California’s wildfire missions, airmen of the 163d Attack Wing’s Maintenance Group are busting knuckles without burning out.

    Inspired that the video feed from their wing’s MQ-9 Reaper circling above the Ranch Fire enabled a last-minute evacuation that likely saved lives, the maintainers rededicated themselves to the tireless operations tempo.

    “One of the things [163d ATKW commander] Col. [Sean] Navin is doing for us is passing down stories,” said Capt. Josh Weddington, commander of the 163d Maintenance Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, California. “That’s how you keep people connected, even though we’re so far away from the fires. We’re still connected to the victims.”

    “On a day-to-day basis, you do your job, and do it well. But with the fires going, there’s a sense of satisfaction among the maintainers,” explained Master Sgt. Carlos Barrera, production superintendent. “Hearing that our Reaper flew over a town, saw the fire raging down the hill, and they evacuated the people, helps everyone. That’s why we keep the aircraft up, to save to people.”

    Now entering the seventh week of irregular but all-consuming emergency operations, the wing has managed to rotate the Reaper remotely piloted aircraft above several fire areas, gathering critical information as the California Air National Guard supports CAL FIRE and other decision makers. All this, while going about its normal business, which has been anything but normal: The fire outbreak coincided with a wing conversion to the latest Reapers—so-called Block 5 models, with new Block 30 ground control stations—an enormous challenge for a maintenance shop.

    “Maintenance had to put up two different versions of the MQ-9 aircraft during the day, one for the fires, and another so that [Operations] could get trained on the new aircraft,” said Lt. Col. Christopher “Todd” Linton, commander of the 163d Maintenance Group. “And the fact that we’re building and packing up aircraft at the same time has been a herculean, non-stop effort by the maintainers.”

    “In response, we’ve been innovative with our scheduling,” Linton said. “They’re working around the clock to provide the right mix on each shift of aircraft [maintenance] and configurations to the changing requirements being driven by this fire.”

    Linton said the conversion to the new aircraft has to meet a rigid timeline, notwithstanding the intervening emergencies. “Look at the delicate balance of our number one priority, with all these priorities in the background, and our maintainers have absolutely killed it,” Linton said. "As commanders, we’re amazed that there has been nothing that our maintainers couldn’t overcome, no show-stoppers whatsoever. This has been a true testament to the professionalism and discipline of all our maintainers.”

    “You’re fielding a new aircraft in a time of great need,” Linton said. “And there is so much riding on this, in terms of expectations of support, the fact that we are doing it, and doing it well, is nothing short of a miracle. The hard work of the maintenance group made it possible.”

    Those maintainers’ duality of efforts paid off August 4, when the newest model Reaper had been sufficiently tested and trusted to earn a trial by fire, flying over a faraway blaze in northern California, its first real-world mission.

    Adding to the accomplishment, about a third of the shop’s muscle comes from “traditional” airmen who typically only work and train on drill weekends. “We’ve pulled in a lot of those drill-status guardsmen (DSG) to help out,” said Linton. “They’ve come in, stepped up, contributed, and we couldn’t do it without them.”

    “It is great seeing the DSGs come here during the week. It allows maintenance to step back and watch them do the job,” Barrera said. “There’s good morale in the shop, good brotherhood. We’re taking care of each other.”

    Linton praised his group’s “can-do attitude…We realize the importance of what we’re doing and the role that we’re playing in helping people to stay alive while minimizing the damage of these devastating fires. Everyone had no problem going the extra mile to make sure they are doing their duty and answering the call to serve.”

    The pace has included a five-day stretch of 24/7 shifts, but Linton sees no end in sight to the shop’s stamina. “If you asked any maintainer on the line, or in any of these offices, or anyone supporting them, they would tell you, ‘We’ll do it until the Governor says we’re good.’ “



    Date Taken: 08.10.2018
    Date Posted: 08.10.2018 15:25
    Story ID: 288289

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