BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan - On a corner of the flight line here, a humble team rolls one A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft after another through the oversized tent that serves as the maintenance hangar. Their workload is both intense and intensely important and without them, the aircraft would not remain air worthy.
The Phase inspection team of the 455th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron - mainly consisting of Airmen from the Arkansas Air National Guard's 188th Fighter Wing - can disassemble, inspect, and reassemble components an A-10 as part of Phase maintenance in as little as about a week, roughly a quarter of the time taken in a stateside environment.
To accomplish that, the inspection teams works 24 hours per day in 12-hour shifts. Their non-stop effort has a huge impact on the inspection's completion time.
That kind of efficiency also requires an ideal combination of management, skilled technicians, and a strong sense of teamwork, said Air Force Master Sgt. Gary Childers, who manages the workflow for the entire Phase inspection process.
Phase maintenance and inspection involves 300 separate inspection points covering nearly every inch of the aircraft. This work requires thoroughness like no other from the team of about 40 Airmen that take care of Phase inspections.
"Everyone knows what they're doing," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Dustin Ponder, a member of the Phase team who has experience with not only the A-10 but also with the C-17 Globemaster III aircraft. "We get a game plan and everyone gets a zone to work on. And we're here 24/7, so we can get it done fast."
Their non-stop effort has a huge impact on the inspection's completion time.
Once an aircraft is due for its Phase inspection, it is rolled into the inspection hangar. The Phase team begins by pulling the aircraft apart, panel by panel, from every direction. Days two and three are spent performing inspections, repairs, and reassembly and operational checks to ensure each part functions properly. By day four, the aircraft gets a final once-over and is rolled back out to the flight line for its next mission.
Aircraft are sent to Phase inspection after every 500 flying hours. That number comes around about every two years at a stateside Air National Guard unit, said Childers. In Afghanistan, the aircraft reach 500 hours roughly every few months.
That high operational tempo, said Childers, means that his team benefits by the experience they gain. He estimated they get what would normally be a year's worth of training every month.
Childers said the work pays off when the aircraft rolls out.
"You get a sense of pride when you get the plane together, they load it up with bombs, and you know what it's going out to accomplish," he said. "You see what your work is accomplishing. At home the mission is training. Out here it's real."
That pride in work comes from being part of a good team, said Ponder, who paused while removing an air conditioner vent to tip his wrench to his co-workers.
"I've been with a couple of units," he said. "I worked on A-10s before this in Germany. Everything here goes on as a team unit. And this is bar none the best as far as camaraderie. Everyone gets along probably the best I've ever seen. But we still get things done fast."
That's also evidenced by others.
"When they pull the jet into this hangar, these guys are on it," said Air Force Capt. Jason Woodruff, maintenance operations officer with the 455th EMXS. "There are 20 guys working on this jet at any one time. They're all tearing into it, they like their job, and they know the benefit of getting that jet out onto the line to fly. These guys are doing an awesome job turning these jets, to get them back into the air to fight the mission."
The hot Afghanistan sun crawled from one side of the hangar to the other. By the next time the maintainers see the sun, the aircraft they are currently working on would more than likely be undoing pre-flight inspections to depart for its next mission.