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Operation Unified Protector
U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz shakes the hand of 1st Lt. Matthew Larson, 77th “Gambler” Aircraft Maintenance Unit officer in charge, at Aviano Air Base, Italy, to congratulate the “Gamblers” on their excellent work during Operation Unified Protector. The 77th FS deployed to OUP to support NATO forces through the suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses and ensured the safety of NATO assets. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo/released)
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NATO called - Shaw responded: Part 3 of 4

Posted 2/10/2012   Updated 2/13/2012 Email story   Print story


by Senior Airman Daniel Phelps
20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

2/10/2012 - SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C.  -- Editor's note: This is part three of a four-part series on the 20th Fighter Wing's role in Operation Unified Protector.

No mission will succeed without the people behind the scene.

A jet can't take off of the runway and still expect to take down the bad guys and come back safe without Airmen loading munitions, pumping fuel and tightening every bolt.

"We made OUP happen," said Staff Sgt. Mitchell Merchant, 55th Aircraft Maintenance Unit crew chief. "We provided combat capability to the NATO commander and a safe seat for our pilots to go out."

"There wasn't much risk to us, thanks to our maintenance people being so good at what they do," said Lt. Col. Michael Schnabel, 55th Fighter Squadron commander. "With a single engine aircraft and being thousands of miles away from home base, the fact that they kept us in tact was incredible."

"Maintenance tore it up," agreed Lt. Col. Johnny Vargas, 77th FS commander.

The 20th FW maintainers were well prepared for the task at hand for OUP.

"We basically did the same thing there we do here," said Senior Airman Jeremy Hadzick, 55th AMU crew chief. "We generated real world combat sorties, only at a different pace."

The crew chiefs kept people working around the clock to make sure the 20th FW F-16s were able to take to the sky.

We worked 12 hour days, six days a week for each person to maintain the 24 hour coverage, Merchant said.

"There was always a jet landing, a jet in the air and a jet getting ready to take off," added Hadzick.

As soon as the 20th FW arrived, they hit the ground running.

The work was constant and at times hectic, said Senior Airman Audrey Sanchez, 77th AMU crew chief.

The air tasking orders changed daily, so the crew chiefs were constantly adjusting their schedule.

"At times we had to rush to get things fixed," continued Tech. Sgt. William Geiser, 77th AMU crew chief. "Trying to schedule phase flow when we were starting OUP with only six jets and four were always in the air was rough."

Phase flow is when the maintainers completely tear down the jet to check out the inside to see if there is anything not properly working.

"It took some careful planning and schedule changes to make things work with the ATOs," Merchant said. "At Shaw we have a printed schedule we stick to, there we didn't have that."

The crew chiefs worked hard and fast to turn the jets over; at times, in as fast as an hour because there were none to spare.

"We would be ready on the spot," explained Staff Sgt. Brian Barnes, 77th AMU crew chief. "People would stand in position with everything ready as soon one landed, ready with the fuel and ready with the ammo."

Every single one of the 20th FW maintainers played a vital role in keeping the jets in the air.

We were pretty short on our technical experts, so a lot people had to step up and cover those positions, Barnes explained. Airmen had to fill in and perform jobs they had never done before, which can be pretty stressful.

"But, we did what we had to do," he added. "We generated jets. They went out full and came back empty and safe."

The success of the crew chiefs all came down to team work.

"Every single one of us was critical," Sanchez described. "None of us did one thing special, but it took every one of us to focus on that one main goal. It was the best team work I've ever seen. It was a huge thing we did."

Though the work of the crew chiefs was behind the scenes, it did not go unnoticed.

"I wouldn't want to go to war with another group of professionals," Vargas said.

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