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Enlisted Maintainers: Pride in Ownership

Enlisted maintainers inspect, repair, and maintain aircraft using expert technical knowledge and skill. They take great pride in the ownership given to them: to provide aircrews with mission ready aircraft.

The Air Force relies heavily on enlisted maintainers to keep aircraft flying. Enlisted maintenance crews troubleshoot urgent repairs, overhaul complex systems, and closely inspect parts to prevent future problems. Their work demands complete accuracy because lives depend on it.

This is no easy task considering the many mechanical, electrical, and computerized systems that undergo constant wear. Maintainers work in all conditions, at all hours, and often face shortages of parts and personnel.

Crew Chiefs and Specialists
Crew chiefs are responsible for the general maintenance and care of aircraft. Supported by assistants, crew chiefs inspect, service, and coordinate all repairs. They travel with their aircraft, often inspecting and servicing it before flight, and then inspecting, refueling, and repairing it after flight. In the air, an aircraft belongs to its pilot, but on the ground it belongs to its crew chief.

When specialized repairs are needed on aircraft systems such as hydraulics or navigation, the crew chief coordinates with a maintenance specialist who has received advanced training on that specific system. While the specialist performs their assigned repairs, the crew chief acts as a liaison and continues to provide general care. 

Experienced crew chiefs may become “dedicated crew chiefs” who remain with one assigned aircraft. They earn this privilege by displaying above average technical knowledge, initiative, and leadership abilities. Often their name is painted on the aircraft, further cementing their accountability. They may also become “flying crew chiefs” by joining aircrews on missions and performing urgent repairs when “on the road.”

The technical knowledge, skill, and dedication of enlisted aircraft maintainers make USAF daily flight operations possible.

What do Enlisted Maintainers Repair?
Maintainers repair aircraft of all types, including helicopters, tiltrotors, and remotely piloted aircraft. They fabricate, shape, and join sheet metal, plastic, and fiberglass surfaces to keep airframes strong. There are even mechanics who maintain the test equipment used to test the aircraft’s systems. A few subcategories of maintenance include:

  • Aerospace propulsion (engines)
  • Life support (oxygen, parachutes, etc.)
  • Pneudraulics (landing gear, brakes, steering)
  • Egress (escape and ejection equipment)
  • Fuels
  • Metals processing (machinists and welders)
  • Aircraft structural maintenance
  • Missile maintenance
  • Weapons systems
  • Electrical systems
  • Avionics (communications, navigation, etc.)
  • Instrument and flight controls systems
  • Early warning radar
  • Electronic warfare equipment
  • Aerospace ground equipment and more

USAF Aircraft Maintenance in the Korean War
With the arrival of the jet age after World War II, the Air Force began purchasing test equipment and using technical data for troubleshooting. However, when the Korean War began, the newly independent Air Force struggled to provide enough trained personnel.

Maintainers served twelve month tours in Korea. When they gained proficiency with their aircraft, they returned to the United States and an inexperienced maintainer took over. Inadequate maintenance, combined with challenges such as rough runways, cold weather, and supply shortages, caused aircraft to deteriorate faster than expected.

In response, the USAF used better-equipped facilities in nearby Japan for Rear Echelon Combined Maintenance Operation (REMCO), which proved successful.

Post-Korea Restructuring
The Air Force acquired more jet aircraft and took measures to modernize the force following Korea. During the Southeast Asia War, predictable shortfalls in maintenance facilities, supplies, and trained personnel were solved, only to be hindered by postwar budget cuts.

In 1978, a new program called COMO (Combat Oriented Maintenance Organization) established unit production goals, introduced the dedicated crew chief program, and expanded unit awards to foster pride. Combined with improved facilities, the results were dramatically successful. A second program, Rivet Workforce, consolidated maintenance specialties into broad categories to increase versatility. However, many argued that it diluted the force’s technical expertise, and greater levels of specialization returned by the 90s.

21st Century Maintainers
Today’s maintainers receive highly technical training with more advanced technology than ever before, using computers for everything from repair manuals and monitoring aircraft condition to detecting malfunctions and automatic troubleshooting. As technology continues to evolve and more skills are demanded of maintainers, pride in ownership remains a common thread.

The Mechanic’s Creed 
Upon my honor I swear that I shall hold in sacred trust the rights and privileges conferred upon me as a certified mechanic. Knowing full well that the safety and lives of others are dependent upon my skill and judgment, I shall never knowingly subject others to risks which I would not be willing to assume for myself, or those dear to me.

In discharging this trust, I pledge myself never to undertake work or approve work which I feel to be beyond the limits of my knowledge, nor shall I allow any non-qualified superior to persuade me to approve aircraft or equipment as airworthy against my better judgment, nor shall I permit my judgment to be influenced by money or other personal gain, nor shall I pass as airworthy aircraft or equipment about which I am in doubt, either as a result of direct inspection or uncertainty regarding the ability of others who have worked on it to accomplish their work satisfactorily.

I realize the grave responsibility which is mine as a certified Airman, to exercise my judgment on the airworthiness of aircraft and equipment. I therefore pledge unyielding adherence to these precepts for the advancement of aviation and for the dignity of my vocation.

Pratt & Whitney R-4360 “Wasp Major” Engine
This Pratt & Whitney “Wasp Major” engine represents the most technically advanced and complex reciprocating aircraft engine mass produced in the United States. Reciprocating aircraft engines reached their practical limit with this engine, which powered the last generation of piston-engine bombers.

Developed near the end of World War II to power the Boeing B-50, it later powered postwar bombers, cargo/transports, and aerial tankers, including the C-124 Globemaster II featured in this gallery.

The R-4360 features twenty-eight cylinders in four rows of seven, arranged in a spiral “corncob” shape for efficient cooling.

While reliable in flight, the R-4360 required intensive maintenance. Improper starting could damage all fifty-six spark plugs, forcing hours of cleaning or replacing. However, its power to weight ratio, 1.11hp/lb, was matched by few contemporary engines.

R-4360 engines powered the Boeing B-50 "Lucky Lady" when it made the first non-stop around the world flight in 1949.

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