By Senior Airman Michael Cossaboom, 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs / Published November 12, 2015
SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. (AFNS) -- Pilots rush into the locker room, preparing for another day of flying. Laughing and joking, they throw on their gear and grab their helmets. To them, it's just another day, but the Airmen that serviced their equipment look on slightly anxiously as they see the pilots walk out the door to their aircraft.
Confident, yet tense, thoughts of the pilot's safety linger in their heads as they continue to work. All they can do now is wait.
Aircrew flight equipment Airmen assigned to the 20th Operations Support Squadron are responsible for the maintenance, inspections and servicing of all equipment that aircrew personnel require while performing their duties.
From maintaining helmets to sewing vests and repacking parachutes, AFE Airmen spend their days focused, ensuring they maintain the attention to detail that is required to not miss a single step.
"We don't get that second shot to save the pilot," said Staff Sgt. Anthony Tyler, an AFE specialist with the 20th OSS. "If something goes sideways while they're in the air, our equipment has to work just right the first time."
The gear the Airmen service is vital to a pilot's safety. The oxygen mask has to pump oxygen to the pilot at high altitudes, a parachute has to deploy if there's an emergency, and the pilot’s visor has to be clear to provide an unobstructed view.
AFE Airmen are broken up into two locations on base. Some are assigned to the back shop where they inspect, pack, repair and service all parachutes that will go into one of Shaw's 76 F-16CM Fighting Falcons.
"We'll go through and do whatever needs to be done to that 'chute," Tyler said. "Whether it's changing the canopy or just a simple repack, we'll also go through the survival kit and make sure everything is there, nothing has expired and that everything is tightly packed."
In the AFE career field, there are no second chances. If a pilot needs to eject during a sortie, the parachute has to deploy. if it doesn’t, the pilot’s life is at risk.
AFE specialists who aren't in the back shop could be assigned to one of the three fighter squadrons, where they will directly interact with their pilots. They tend to all the gear, ensuring the pilots have everything they need.
"One really cool thing about our job is that we are so close to our pilots," Tyler said. "We know what their preferences are, we know how they like to wear their gear and we know how they walk. We try to get to know everything we can about them so they can be as comfortable as they can in flight."
AFE Airmen pride themselves in consistently giving products of the highest caliber, realizing that a sense of trust is integral in their relationship with the pilots.
"After you're done with a piece of equipment, if you wouldn't give it to your mom or brother or someone you love, you wouldn't put it back in the locker for someone to use," said Senior Master Sgt. Ellis Stokes, the 20th OSS AFE superintendent. "We don't get any do-overs; you have to get it right the first time."
In the end, when the mighty war birds touch down and pull into their parking bays one by one, the pilots dismount and make their way to the locker room to stow away their gear until tomorrow. The pilots wave and smile at the AFE Airmen in the back. The Airmen return the wave, and with each sage green flight suit that walks through the door, their smiles grow bigger as they see each of the pilots they sent off that morning return home.