EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- Although they don’t maintain aircraft or pavement, they are imperative to the safety of every airman, sailor, soldier, Marine and allied partner who flies throughout RED FLAG-Alaska.
The 354th Civil Engineer Squadron power production shop, or Power Pros, maintains the barrier aircraft arresting kit cable systems, which acts as an emergency brake for a troubled aircraft which may be having trouble on landing.
“If a jet has a malfunction such as hydraulic failure, landing gear problems or stalling engines and has to stop quickly, they use this system to come to a halt,” said Tech. Sgt. Brian Brown, 354th CES power production noncommissioned officer-in-charge. “We install, change and maintain the system every day.”
Brown compares the cable stop to the braking system on an aircraft carrier, where planes risk going into the sea if they aren’t stopped. RF-A aircraft won’t dive into the ocean, but safety is still the number one concern.
“These cables are rarely used because they are for emergencies, yet they have to be maintained throughout every landing cycle,” he said.
The constant rotation of cables between landing and takeoff causes the Power Pros to scramble up and down the flight line in a heavy-duty truck dragging a 1.25-inch cable on and off the ramp. Cables can’t be blocking the path of aircraft during takeoff, but must be quickly replace before landing.
Weighing in at approximately 1,200 pounds, the 303 foot cables are each attached to a six-inch thick nylon strap 1,600 feet long, which is wound in the braking system.
“We can stop any aircraft in the military inventory as long as it has a tail hook,” said Sonny Hill, 354th CES power production technician.
After retiring from the Air Force as a maintainer, Hill has been working on the braking systems at Eielson for 10 years.
“The key to doing this every day is to not get complacent,” he said. “We do the same thing over and over, but you have to do it right with attention to detail every time. When you aren’t thorough, that’s when airmen get hurt.”
During a RED FLAG exercise, the Power Pro team can change up to 60 cables a week. These cables each have to be stretched, tested and tied to work properly. Participating airframes can often be low to the ground, so the team makes sure the steel length is secured inches off the ground.
Their job isn’t just about heavy lifting, it’s about precise calculations.
“We have to calculate weight of aircraft, landing speed and height,” Hill said. “It’s important to known how many times each cable can get hit without being replaced.”
This system has nothing to do with power production, yet Brown said his crew takes great pride being able to participate on the flight line.
“I don’t know exactly why we have this duty, but it definitely has some unique challenges and rewards,” he said. “At one point someone said, ‘Hey, these [airmen] can do this job better than anyone; let’s keep them out here.”
The whole team agrees there are challenges rushing to set cables, sometimes while battling snow and ice in sub-zero temperatures; however, the reward comes with every catch.
“Every time a cable is used, you know you saved a pilot’s life,” said Hill. “That alone is worth keeping this system perfect every day.”