A crew chief stands next to his aircraft

Generating Airpower: Chiefs of the flightline

by Staff Sgt. Derek VanHorn
35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Growing up in the backwoods of Arkansas, he’d never turned a wrench a day in his life. Most of his time was spent at fishing holes, hauling hay and running around with his buddies. The closest he got to a garage was changing his car oil for a senior year shop class. It would be an understatement to say he was shocked to learn he’d be fixing jets for a living.

“I thought ‘this is crazy, you want to put an 18-year-old in charge of a jet?’” said Staff Sgt. James McFadden. “But I love it. I knew I’d love it from that point on.”

That was more than 10 years ago, and since then he’s come a long way. He’s a dedicated crew chief – one assigned to a specific jet, the penultimate achievement of a crew chief – and is well known across Misawa’s flightline. Everyone in earshot calls him “Biff,” a moniker earned for his aesthetic similarities to a character in the 1985 film “Back to the Future.”

He soaks it in. If crew chiefs weren’t giving each other a hard time, something would be seriously wrong. It’s all part of their prototypical “work hard, play hard” mantra.

They’re usually dressed in what’s most easily described as blue jump suits, which are every bit as dirty and beaten down as your hometown garage mechanic’s. They’re about as personable, too – edgy and stoic with a baseline demeanor that screams unapproachable.

They also play a huge role in every F-16 Fighting Falcon that leaves the runway here. With more than 6,000 sorties flown annually, there’s not much room for time off.

“Crew chiefs are everything,” said McFadden, assigned to the 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. “We’re the last to touch the jet before it takes off and the first to touch it as soon as it lands.”

They’re a rare breed of maintainer; they do it all and have to be efficient in maintaining every aspect of their aircraft. When describing exactly what a crew chief does, McFadden’s list stretched beyond 10 major duties. He listed things like pre- and post-flight checks and intake inspections, which entail literally disappearing inside the intake of an
F-16.

Staff Sgt. James McFadden, 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron dedicated crew chief, finishes off a tire change on an F-16 Fighting Falcon  Jan. 8, 2015, at Misawa Air Base, Japan. McFadden's duties as a crew chief are extensive, and include things like pre- and post-flight inspections, intake inspections and all-around maintenance. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Derek VanHorn/Released)
Staff Sgt. James McFadden, 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron dedicated crew chief, finishes off a tire change on an F-16 Fighting Falcon Jan. 8, 2015, at Misawa Air Base, Japan. McFadden’s duties as a crew chief are extensive, and include things like pre- and post-flight inspections, intake inspections and all-around maintenance. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Derek VanHorn/Released)

Some days are spent crewing a specific jet for the day’s flights, which is essentially sending a pilot off with a salute after confirming the jet is “good to go.” Others are dedicated to the many demands of the maintenance world. It’s difficult to put into words all that a crew chief does.

“You can’t describe it,” McFadden said. “You can say ‘It’s cold, it’s hard, it’s dirty, I bust my knuckles, I’m always in the elements,’ but you can’t truly understand it until you’re out here.”

It’s a job that knows no mercy; if jets are flying, crew chiefs are there. They brave relentless wind and winter cold, mummified in layers of cold weather gear and goggles while grinding through 12-hour shifts.

“Most every maintainer will tell you the toughest part of the job is being stuck in the elements,” said Airman 1st Class Kostyantyn Morozyuk, 35 AMXS assistant dedicated crew chief to McFadden. Together, they’re dedicated to a single F-16. They simply call their jet “921,” in reference to the last three digits of its tail number.

Morozyouk said McFadden runs a tight ship, but it’s all in the spirit of their culture. They know each other like the backs of their grease-covered hands.

“Crew chiefs have the strongest relationship of any group on the flightline,” Morozyuk said. “We all know each other and the longer you work together, the more chances you get to prove yourself.”

It’s a work-heavy career field, and day-shift maintainers – who typically work launch and recovery for F-16 sorties – often arrive to the flightline before the sun comes up and leave well after it’s gone. It’s just part of their lifestyle.

“I’ve always had a real good habit, from the time I leave for work to the time I come home, that’s what it’s all about,” McFadden said. “As soon as we go into roll call and get turnover, it’s nothing but work.”

He said it’s easier that way, especially in a world where your work effort and output goes a long way.

“If you have to step off the job for anything, it hurts production.” McFadden said. “We have a job to get jets in the air, so we can’t afford having others pickup our slack.”

It’s not that they wouldn’t accept help, but they’d be sure to hear about it.

“Sometimes we’re a little cocky,” McFadden smiled. “People know when they’re dealing with a crew chief, especially out here. We all have an attitude to us; that’s just part of the territory.”

Morozyuk said the pride extends beyond just the quality of the work and into a level of personal ownership.

“The way we carry ourselves is unlike anyone else,” Morozyuk said. “That’s my jet. I tell people they can work on my jet, but they need to know it’s mine.”

Sometimes the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. They even tend to the jet’s aesthetics, cleaning it regularly with every bit of confidence it’s the sharpest of the fleet. They’re extremely familiar with nearly every inch of it, sometimes a little more than they’d like.

“That’s the only bad thing about the F-16,” McFadden joked. “For a big guy like me, it has some small areas to maneuver.”

For all the sardonic flightline speak, at their core, there’s a genuine seriousness to their purpose. McFadden was able to put it into play recently while deployed with the
13th Fighter Squadron and Aircraft Maintenance Unit to Jordan, where he was able to carry out the dream of every crew chief.

“When live [munitions] went up, things got real for crew chiefs,” McFadden said. “There’s nothing like watching a fully loaded jet take off in burner and return empty; it’s phenomenal.”

Often times, maintenance can be a thankless job. They’re the grunts on the ground who spend countless hours through the wear and the weather.

“We don’t always get rewarded or recognized,” Morozyuk said, “but I don’t need to be told I’m doing a good job when I see these jets take off.”

It’s easy to tell who he learned from.

“Every good crew chief knows how important they are,” McFadden said. “They won’t always talk about it and they’ll play it down, but we all know how important we are. I don’t know what else I would even do; I wouldn’t give this up for anything.”

Not too bad for someone who’d previously never turned a wrench in his life.

Staff Sgt. James McFadden, 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron dedicated crew chief, secures wire bracing on the tire of an F-16 Fighting Falcon on Jan. 8, 2015, at Misawa Air Base, Japan. Crew chiefs are the last to touch a jet when it takes off and the first to touch it when it lands. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Derek VanHorn)
Staff Sgt. James McFadden, 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron dedicated crew chief, secures wire bracing on the tire of an F-16 Fighting Falcon on Jan. 8, 2015, at Misawa Air Base, Japan. Crew chiefs are the last to touch a jet when it takes off and the first to touch it when it lands. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Derek VanHorn)

One thought on “Generating Airpower: Chiefs of the flightline”

  1. As a prior Crew Chief a few years ago, this story is “Real Air Force” and SSgt McFadden is great. I’m jealous of reading his story. I’d work for/with him any time. James “Biff” with you on the job and in OUR Air Force we all may sleep well. Keep it going, you’re Sierra Hotel ! ! Chief Stowers, B-36, B-52, KC-135s
    All the very best to all of you.

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