Packing equipment nobody wants to have to use

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Rachel Ingram
  • 445th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Some equipment is virtually invisible until an emergency occurs, but for the men and women of the aircrew flight equipment shop, their duty revolves around it.

Before hitting the runway, every Air Force aircraft is strategically stocked with inflatable rafts, night vision goggles, parachutes, oxygen systems, flotation devices and more. The AFE Airmen, part of the 445th Operations Support Squadron, maintain the safety and emergency equipment for aircrew and passengers departing from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

 “Our squadron motto is, ‘We’re the last ones to let you down,’ and that’s true,” said Staff Sgt. Addison Wyckoff, aircrew flight equipment technician. “We have systems and processes in place to check everything over and ensure the gear is going to work how and when it’s supposed to.”

For example, each of the nine assigned C-17 Globemaster III aircraft at the 445th Airlift Wing are equipped with three 46-person survival rafts, placed in specialized compartments in the ceiling of the plane’s cabin, where they deploy out the top of the aircraft in the event of an emergency water landing. These rafts are inspected at least once every four years for wear and tear, including a six-hour leak test.

“We spread the raft all the way out and do a number of inspections and tests before meticulously folding it back up into precise dimensions,” says Tech. Sgt. Seth G. Ravert, air reserve technician. “The entire inspection process involves about three Airmen and takes approximately two weeks to complete.”

The survival rafts are tightly compressed into bins, strategically folded and peppered with talcum powder to inhibit friction-induced bald spots, excess moisture, or dry rot, then laboriously manipulated into a bin by two or three Airmen working as a team to cinch down cargo straps across the top to temporarily contain the raft within the confines of the bin until installation. These bins, designed with an open surface and no lid, must be affixed to the aircraft ceiling within an hour to ensure proper fit. Much longer than that, and the deflated raft will expand just slightly enough that it rises above the upper lip of its storage bin and requires complete repacking.

“Most people are used to having training gear, but for us, this isn’t practice,” said Tech. Sgt. Amy Stanfield, aircrew flight equipment technician. “This is someone’s real world gear. It has to work.”

Around the corner in the aircrew support shop, the focus is on equipment hand-carried by the pilots, loadmasters, and other crew members. Night vision goggles, armored vests, survival backpacks and laser-shielding glasses are examples of the equipment maintained by the Airmen in this shop.

Much like the teams who pack the parachutes and rafts, every inch of space is precious to the workers who maintain the aircraft support equipment. Backpack survival kits are organized into smaller pouches filled with drinking water, batteries, flares, lip balm, a satellite radio, signal mirror, compass, knife and more.

“You don’t really think about this stuff until you need it,” says Master Sgt. Vincent L. Gibson, quality assurance manager. “One person can grab this bag and get out of there. It holds enough supplies for the entire crew.”

Despite all the time that goes into inspecting and packing the equipment, the Airmen insist that the best part of the job is disassembling the untouched kits and replacing them with new gear during the next inspection cycle.

“Even though we are so tedious about neatly packaging and preparing the equipment, we hope nobody ever has to use it,” says Master Sgt. Megan A. Pericht. “Taking unused equipment off the aircraft means that everyone went home to their families at the end of the mission, and that’s always a good day.”