WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. - When B-2 Spirit pilots cannot take off due to engine failures, it is up to jet engine mechanics from the 509th Maintenance Squadron aerospace propulsion flight to save the day.
"Without an engine, the B-2 is just a static display," said Senior Airman Brady Dell, 509th MXS aerospace propulsion journeyman. "Without our service, the entire mission stops."
Jet engine mechanics get down and dirty every day to ensure the B-2 has quality engines for strategic deterrence and global strike operations, said Dell.
"Once we receive the engines, we fix them and run them in our test cell," said Senior Airman Edward Caglayan, 509th MXS aerospace propulsion journeyman. "Once we know they are serviceable, we put them on the spare engine line for use."
The test cell is a $2.9-million-facility where mechanics perform test runs on repaired engines.
"Since defective engines need to be tested before being loaded back onto the B-2s to accrue flight hours, it would be close to impossible to accomplish the mission without our test cell," said Senior Airman Kaitlyn Fawber, 509th MXS aerospace propulsion journeyman. "Getting the engines running in our test cell saves mechanics from spending extra time and money to send them to Tinker Air Force Base, Okla."
It would take weeks, and cost the Air Force around $1,500 per engine, for this back-and-forth route between Whiteman and Tinker, said Fawber.
"Not having the test cell would also hurt the effectiveness of the wing to produce serviceable aircraft for training sorties and other missions," Dell said.
Along with testing engines, tearing them down to fix faulty components and building them back up like an extensive Lego set is part of the everyday hustle, said Caglayan.
The team's 35 mechanics work day and swing shifts to ensure they can deliver quality products to aircrews in need of engine replacements at a moment's notice, said Dell.
"If extra work arises, we sometimes work longer shifts or serve weekend duty," he said.
Typically an experienced senior airman or non-commissioned officer will keep a standby phone, with a younger A1C or below to respond to maintenance issues that arise during weekends and hours outside of the normal duty shifts, said Caglayan.
"We have a standby schedule that changes weekly," he said. "Anyone in our flight could possibly be called in for weekend duty."
To be proficient in their specialty, aerospace propulsion mechanics have to be trained in a wide range of tasks.
"We do everything from physically removing the motors from the aircraft, to performing inspections to replacing vital components," Caglayan said. "We also use boroscopes, which are small video cameras that can extend into smaller parts of the engine, to help mechanics ensure intricate components aren't damaged or missing."
One of the difficulties in maintaining engines is trying to figure out the root cause of a faulty motor, said Caglayan.
"When you're on a time crunch, it's about using your best knowledge to try to figure out where to start off," Caglayan said. "Another challenge is making sure all of the new Airmen understand the importance of our job."
The challenge of working with multi-million dollar engine components is one aerospace propulsion mechanics face daily, Caglayan added. In addition, these maintainers also need to know how to manage time wisely as engines come in and out of the shop.
"Working around budget constraints and the timelines our production supervisors give us can sometimes be a challenge," Dell said. "Our job requires us to think outside the box to pinpoint issues and get them fixed in a timely manner."
Along with having the ability to think on their feet to solve problems, maintaining engines also requires mechanics to be physically ready for the mission. Many times, Airmen are required to lift heavy pieces of equipment and stand for long periods of time, said Caglayan.
"Sometimes we have to lift 70 to 80 pounds worth of equipment over our heads to accomplish the mission," Caglayan said. "Also, being able to maneuver our bodies to go into tight places is a challenge."
Dell said the long days, which can sometimes last up to 12 hours, require Airmen to be constantly standing.
"Sometimes the work load doesn't permit us to have our normal breaks throughout the day," Dell said. "So we have many days where we're on our feet all day."
Another stressor the job places on mechanics is the time they have to spend away from families to support the mission.
"Those of us working the swing shift who have children going to school during the day don't get to see our little ones throughout the week," Dell said. "It's just something we have to find a way to cope with."
Whether they are running engines through the test cell or breaking down motors to fix major issues, this team of Airmen work together like a family to ensure Whiteman's mission can continue, said Dell.
"Air power comes from the jets we fly," Caglayan said. "Without our career field, jets can't even lift off the ground."