By Tim Kurtz, Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex Management Operations / Published May 01, 2020
ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. —
At a time when social distancing is presenting historically unique challenges, F-15 maintenance crews at Robins recently pulled off a tricky three-for-two aircraft swap that covered more than 4,000 miles.
And they did it in just one weekend.
Four pilots from the 48th Fighter Wing at Royal Air Forces Lakenheath in England flew two F-15 aircraft in need of programmed depot maintenance into the Warner Robins Logistics Complex at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, April 3. Thanks to the work of the 561st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and an intercontinental team effort, the pilots flew back to their base April 6 in three healthy jets fresh from programmed depot maintenance.
Knowing the task ahead, the Robins team set up what is known as a “tail swap.” Capt. Drew Belcher, 561st AMXS maintenance operations officer, said the exchange wasn’t as out of the ordinary as the circumstances were.
And the circumstances were anything but business as usual.
“It isn’t completely abnormal,” Belcher said of the swap. “But there were unique challenges. Particularly, that all of the work was done with about 50% of our normal manning.”
Although it is “normal” for the 561st to get three aircraft ready to go, PDM is always a big job. Add the short time frame, limitations posed by a pandemic and an ocean between the bases, and the swap turned into a more monumental undertaking.
“It takes a lot of work leading up to it,” Belcher said. “Especially right now with our minimal manpower.”
Amid the unusual, it helped that something typical was occurring. The F-15 maintainers were getting the job done well before the swap took place. Two F-15Es assigned to Lakenheath had been cleared through PDM March 18. The third aircraft involved in the exchange, an F-15C, was ready to go March 19.
Todd Cross, the 561st deputy flight chief, said the unparalleled set of challenges presented by the pandemic were conquered by the F-15 maintenance crews in awe-inspiring fashion.
“During this time, we only had one crew, which was a day shift operation only,” Cross said. “The two aircraft coming in were delayed on that Friday due to a tanker issue, so we worked 12 hours that day to get them on the ground at Robins.
“The crew worked over the weekend to get the jets ready to depart the following Monday morning,” Cross explained. “The crew had to come in at midnight Sunday night to prep and launch the aircraft for departure around 4:00 a.m. We had some delays due to tanker issues, but finally got them off the ground around 5:30 a.m. Monday.
“The crew adjusted with no issues to get the mission accomplished,” Cross said. “I am very proud to be a part of this team. Service before self and excellence in all we do.”
Belcher said the 561st benefited greatly from the teamwork of the 558th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, which was a “huge part of the PDM process from painting to support.”
He said the end result was the WR-ALC team fulfilling its commitment to the uniformed men and women defending the nation.
“Our mission here at Robins and in the depot is to overhaul aircraft and get them back to the warfighter,” Belcher said. “With all the unique and limiting factors we had, it was an incredible effort to get this done.
“Lakenheath had a need to get those aircraft back in the fight. It was very important we got these aircraft back there quickly,” he said.
PDM on the aircraft was mostly done before stringent requirements such as wearing masks were imposed at the complex, but precautions were already being taken.
“Our workers were social distancing as much as possible,” Belcher said.
The captain explained that grouping aircraft together at least two at a time is a necessary practice for trips covering great distances. Having wingmen along for the ride provides advantages of increased safety – especially when return flights cross the ocean. In the case of a Robins-to-Lakenheath journey, four “tanker hits” – aerial refuelings – are required.
Belcher said a “leak and transfer check” is also mandatory for aircraft leaving PDM for long flights overseas. The procedure involves test pilots taking the aircraft up with external fuel tanks and making sure the fuel transfer works properly.
“The fact we had to do it on three aircraft adds more to the story of what we had to do for these aircraft to go home,” Belcher said.
One last extra-added task on the F-15 trio was requested by the maintenance squadron’s engineering counterparts – a complete decontamination of the aircraft.
Belcher said the deep cleaning was absolutely necessary to guard against the possibility asymptomatic personnel had been in contact with a surface. Engineers gave instructions on decontamination procedures, and maintainers did the job. “The main consideration was the cockpit,” and anywhere the aircrew would touch, he said.
Keeping team members at a distance posed other unique challenges for the jet swap. To protect against any potential spread of COVID-19, special attention was in order for the visitors from Lakenheath.
“What wasn’t ordinary was how we coordinated the logistics of their stay on base,” Belcher said. “Usually when pilots come in, they coordinate their own lodging; they coordinate their own rental car. However, this time we had pilots go into full quarantine when they got here.”
The atypical arrangements took “a big team effort,” according to the captain, including a unified effort between Robins organizations and constant communication with maintenance and operations commanders at Lakenheath.
The maintenance squadron worked closely with 78th Air Base Wing units to coordinate the weekend stay for the guests. When the four pilots arrived for the swap, drivers from 78th Logistics Readiness Squadron ground transportation took them to on-base rooms set aside for quarantine by Pine Oaks Lodging. The 78th Force Support Squadron dining facility provided boxed meals for the aircrew during their stay.
With all of their needs addressed, the pilots stayed in their rooms until the 78th LRS transported them to their ready F-15 Eagles.
“It was unique in that it was specifically quarantined lodging,” Belcher said. “Usually we don’t give two thoughts about how they set up when they get here. But this time, we were full hands on. It was definitely a unique situation.
“All of this extra work was important because it was not only providing protection for us here, but for the pilots arriving here,” Belcher said.
Having four pilots arrive on two aircraft was not only necessary for the manning needed to fly three jets back to Lakenheath, it also worked well for the virus-prevention effort by eliminating the need for airline flights.
“The fact that we had to prep three aircraft,” Belcher said, “the fact that we could coordinate the timing of two inbound aircraft with three outbound aircraft; this prevented the need for aircrew to take commercial flights on two different occasions because we could do it all at once.
“There was just a lot less risk to the pilots as opposed to coming over in commercial aircraft,” Belcher said. “None of the pilots to this day have contracted the virus. We did all of this for their protection as much as ours.”
Located 70 miles northeast of London, RAF Lakenheath is the largest U.S. Air Force-operated base in England. The 48th Fighter Wing is the U.S. Air Force in Europe’s only F-15 Fighter Wing