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Phase team keeps F-16s in the fight

by Senior Airman Candace Romano
332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

4/23/2007 - BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq (AFNEWS) -- The sound of electric drills and pounding hammers resonates inside the hardened aircraft shelter here as crew chiefs shout orders over the noise of wielding power tools and a variety of gadgets: Welcome to Day One of an F-16 Fighting Falcon phase dock.

Members of the 35th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron phase team are deployed to Balad Air Base from Misawa AB, Japan, to take F-16s apart and put them back together in just a few days so the aircraft can get back into the fight as soon as possible.

"We literally de-panel and inspect the entire jet," said Tech. Sgt. Ethan Thomas, a 332nd Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron phase dock chief. "If anything is broken or requires maintenance, we fix it. Then we put it all back together again. It's like taking your car in to the shop for a check up or scheduled maintenance. Just like they run through their checklists on your car, we've got our own checklists to complete."

The checklist for an F-16 is understandably longer than the average family minivan, and the phase team works around the clock in 12-hour shifts to get the aircraft ready so the plane can continue to fly Operation Iraqi Freedom missions.

"We perform scheduled maintenance to make sure the jets are good to go internally," the sergeant said. "On the flightline, crew chiefs don't see the wires, tubing and ducts inside the panels. Our job is to thoroughly inspect every aspect of the internal workings of the aircraft, thus ensuring the safest, most reliable combat-ready airframe possible.

"Preventive maintenance is also important," Sergeant Thomas said. "If there's a part that needs to be ordered or replaced, this is when we do it."

The phase team begins with removing the panels of the aircraft, which is a tedious task that usually consumes a large portion of the first day. They also perform landing gear and flight control checks. Specialized work cards are used for sections of the aircraft: forward, tail section, landing gear and top. Finally, parts are examined for wear and stress, from the smallest screw to the biggest bulkhead. Nothing goes unnoticed, including the occasional foreign object. Any parts that need to be fixed or replaced are identified.

Trained quality assurance technicians evaluate all the work, inspect every part of the aircraft, and review aircraft forms. The goal is to provide the best possible maintenance on the ground to put the F-16 back in the sky for combat operations.

"The end result we constantly strive for is to pass the QA evaluation and have the aircraft fly Code 1 straight out of phase, which means there were no discrepancies noted by the pilot," said Sergeant Thomas, a 15-year Air Force veteran.

Average phase docks vary from four to five days, although the phase team has been known to complete one in three days, said Senior Airman Gil Alicea, an F-16 crew chief. 

"We usually get another jet in here before the week's over," said Airman Alicea, who is currently on his second deployment. "It's a constant cycle to ensure all the jets are mission capable."

With three fighter squadrons flying more than 4,000 hours per month, the need for phase dock increases as the aircraft hits the 400-flight-hour mark and is required to complete the scheduled phase inspections, said Master Sgt. James Hatin, the maintenance operations flight superintendent.

"In the combat zone, we're flying more sorties every week, increasing the need for phase dock inspections," said Sergeant Thomas, a West Palm Beach, Fla., native. "Back stateside, an F-16 may need a phase dock inspection once a year; but in this deployed environment, an F-16 needs one every 120 days or so."

These maintainers are no stranger to how their job directly correlates to pilot safety and the ability of the aircraft to be mission ready.

"We conduct hourly inspections (every 400 flying hours) to make sure the aircraft is free of any defects," said Staff Sgt. Justin Johnson, a phase inspection team member who is currently on his fifth deployment. "We strive to give the aircraft back to the flightline, knowing every system is fully functional.

"As a crew chief on the flightline, I was more concerned with how many sorties we were flying," he said. "Now that I'm in phase, I can take my time, making sure every bolt and screw is in the right place. It definitely increases our attention to detail when we're doing phase inspections.

"We perform the required scheduled inspections and preventive maintenance, turning around a better product for the flightline," said Sergeant Johnson, who has worked on both the F-16 and F-117A Nighthawk. "If we have zero defects after a QA inspection, that means we did our job. When we hear it take off on a mission, that means we did it well." 

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