Heading out to the aircraft, it’s one of the last places an aviator stops on the way out the door. This one particular TLA (three-letter acronym) operates for the most part  in the background, taking care of gear a pilot depends upon to save their butt, should there be a sudden parting of ways between aircraft and said pilot. You know–little things like helmet, visor, oxygen mask, parachute, survival vest, float coat, and NVGs…to name just a few.

But long before a pilot straps on an aircraft, airmen in the Aircrew Flight Equipment (AFE) shop work hard to provide a pilot with all of that pertinent gear. The Virginia Air National Guardsmen in the 192nd Fighter Wing’s Aircrew Flight Equipment shop at Joint Base Langley-Eustis take great pride in their work, allowing the Old Dominion Raptor drivers to concentrate on their mission and then RTB safely.

Following initial AFE training at the Air Force’s technical school at Sheppard AFB, an enlisted AFE apprentice is given on-the-job training at their unit and gradually (averaging 15 months on the job) certified to be an AFE specialist, or journeyman.

Tools of the trade - used to measure and fit helmets and oxygen masks
Tools of the trade – used to measure and fit helmets and oxygen masks

AFE specialists are responsible for ensuring that a crewmember’s gear fits properly, and while getting fitted for gear, every airman is put through a series of measurements. For the AFE shop, that means taking off-the-shelf components like the helmet and oxygen mask, and custom-fitting each to find and maintain a perfect fit – on the ground as well as in the air.

“Sometimes we need to hand-file down the top of a mask so it doesn’t cut into a pilot’s nose when they pull Gs,” says Master Sergeant Michael Soroka of the Virginia Air National Guard’s 192FW.

The hard work doesn’t stop there; the gear is continuously re-built and time-limited parts are on a regular basis. Each oxygen mask is completely disassembled and rebuilt every 30 days to ensure each component works properly. Even a single, small valve in the mask that ceases to function could starve a pilot of oxygen, so it’s easy to see how disastrous it could be if the AFE shop doesn’t perform to the required level of competency.

An AFE SrA and 1st LT of the 192FW check the continuity of an oxygen mask
An AFE SrA and 1st LT of the 192FW check the continuity of an oxygen mask

The hand-made, painstakingly perfect effort is an outward projection of the true scope of the AFE shop’s dedication to their fellow airmen. “We’re a family here. It’s absolutely essential that we do our job right, otherwise some of our brothers and sisters might walk out the door and never come home,” says Soroka.

“The last thing that we want the pilots to worry about when they’re out there fighting, is whether or not their mask will work, or if their parachute will open if they have to eject. Our pilots know that we take great care in our work so that they can go out, fight, and come home safely.”


(All photos by Jonathan Derden)


FighterSweep gives thanks to Captain Craig Carper, 192 FW/PA, Master Sergeant Michael Soroka, and the rest of the professional guardsmen in the 192 FW AFE shop. More to come from Langley, FighterSweep Fans!