On a nice spring morning, and most likely at a nearby military installation, the gates will open for an airshow. At show center are six red, white, and blue F-16Cs which belong to the United States Air Force’s Aerial Demonstration Squadron–the Thunderbirds.

At a given point in the day’s schedule, the pilots and crew chiefs will perform an orchestrated, precise “ground show” to launch the aircraft, and shortly after the Vipers will take to the sky for their trademark demonstration. Most people understand preparation is needed for the performance to go smoothly, but few know exactly what goes into getting to this point of execution.

Bear with me, as I am about to give you a look behind the curtain; but, first let us rewind to the middle of November. The Thunderbirds finish their last show, Aviation Nation, at Nellis AFB. This show marks two things: a successful show season, and the beginning of training season.

Admiring young patriotic fans cheer on the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron "Thunderbirds", as they perform the Diamond Opener during the Aviation Nation Air Show at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Nov. 12, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr., Released)
Admiring young patriotic fans cheer on the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds”, as they perform the Diamond Opener during the Aviation Nation Air Show at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Nov. 12, 2011.
(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr., Released)

Training season runs from the middle of November until the beginning of March, and it’s in this short four and half months the new demonstration pilots are trained and the performance perfected. Every year, half the pilots are newcomers, as is the majority of “Showline” (the Dedicated Crew Chiefs and Specialists who perform the ground show). We often come in early in the morning due to airspace and time conflicts in the Nevada Test and Training Range; when the Thunderbirds moved to Nellis in 1956, they didn’t have to compete with Weapons School, Flag-level exercises, and Creech Air Force Base flight operations all at the same time!

It’s 0500. Roll Call.

We start our day by finding out what aircraft are FMC (fully mission capable) or need work, which personnel are available, takeoff and land times, and any other pertinent information. Depending on the pilot syllabus, maintenance delays, lost sorties, or bad weather, we will fly as little as once, but more often twice or three times a day. Most days it is twice, or a “6 turn 6,” as we call it.

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This actually requires generating 8 aircraft–the 6 primary and 2 spares. As a Dedicated Crew Chief, along with the Assistant Dedicated Crew Chief, we are assigned an aircraft to crew for the day. Make no mistake about the “Assistant” at the beginning of their job title; they own the jet as much as I do, and are specialized craftsman on a specific aircraft system.

Tech. Sgt. Amber Alumpe, an aircrew flight equipment specialist, wipes down a Thunderbird helmet during post-flight inspections on the flight gear at Royal Air Force Base Waddington, United Kingdom, June 30, 2011. The Thunderbirds will perform in nine countries during their six-week European tour, fostering international goodwill and representing America's Airmen around the globe. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr., Released)
Tech. Sgt. Amber Alumpe, an aircrew flight equipment specialist, wipes down a Thunderbird helmet during post-flight inspections on the flight gear at Royal Air Force Base Waddington, United Kingdom, June 30, 2011. The Thunderbirds will perform in nine countries during their six-week European tour, fostering international goodwill and representing America’s Airmen around the globe.
(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr., Released)

After Roll Call, we do a walk-around to pick up any FOD, whether it be in the hangar, the AGE (Aircraft Ground Equipment) yard, and on all sides of the building. This walk-around ends with grabbing our aircraft forms and heading to Sortie Support and Aircrew Flight Equipment (AFE). Support to procure our tools and cleaning supplies; AFE for the pilots’ helmets, harnesses, G-suits, etcetera. After we have everything we need, we head out to the flightline.

Once out on the aircraft spot, it’s time to “break it down”: we remove all of the tie-down straps, intake cover, exhaust cover, and the hard plastic shells and covers in place over the pitot tubes and other sensors. They all have a way to be neatly folded and placed in a specific order next to tool boxes, chocks, and the fire bottles. All aircraft spots are to set up to look identical. After that, as a crew chief, I will do my routine morning inspections. If something needs servicing, which isn’t uncommon overnight, we will service it and proceed to setup the pilot’s gear.

All the AFE is setup in the cockpit, tailored to that individual pilot, and I don’t mean just their name on their helmet. Each switch is specifically set, the seat height, the pedals adjusted–the list goes on. We don’t do this to spoil the pilots; we do this so they can focus on flying the best demonstration possible. They will fly one of our eleven F-16s, and we want them all to feel the same as much as possible.

Staff Sgt. Andrew Hartman, Thunderbird 8 assistant dedicated crew chief, wipes down the chocks to his jet at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, Cleveland, OH, Sept. 5, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr., Released)
Staff Sgt. Andrew Hartman, Thunderbird 8 assistant dedicated crew chief, wipes down the chocks to his jet at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, Cleveland, OH, Sept. 5, 2011.
(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr., Released)

Once we’ve prepared the aircraft for the day’s flying, we will document our work in the aircraft forms and await the Production Supervisor to inspect and release the aircraft to fly. Once they take off for practice, we have about an hour to continue maintenance on other remaining aircraft, or practice the ground show. Perhaps during that period of time, we’ll grab something to eat!

As I mentioned, we have a total of 11 F-16s, but unfortunately, they are never all at your disposal. The aircraft are deliberately scheduled for maintenance in a flow so they all aren’t due at the same time. The fleet has to be carefully managed to not mess up this  workflow, and it can be made difficult by unscheduled maintenance. That occurs when either the pilot reports a problem, or I as crew chief find a discrepancy during my inspections.

Once the aircraft is back on the ground, it’s time to “turn” them as quickly as we can for the next sortie. This includes an intake inspection, a full load of fuel, thru-flight inspection, canopy cleaning, aircraft wipe down, aircrew gear swap, and aircraft forms documentation. On a good day with nothing to fix and a few extra people to help, you could knock it all out in less than an hour. In the world of maintenance, it’s a numbers game. Odds are something will be broken, and you won’t have a few extra people to help when you need it most.

Staff Sgt. Tacota LeMuel, Thunderbird 3 dedicated crew chief, inspects the inside of a panel on her jet during a post-flight inspection at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., March 12, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr., Released)
Staff Sgt. Tacota LeMuel, Thunderbird 3 dedicated crew chief, inspects the inside of a panel on her jet during a post-flight inspection at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., March 12, 2012.
(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr., Released)

An average day will take a couple hours to accomplish all tasks. Again, the Production Supervisor will inspect and release the aircraft to fly for the final sortie of the day. It’s usually just past noon at this part of the cycle, and if you didn’t grab something to eat earlier, hopefully, you’ve gotten something by now. Between sorties is similar to when the aircraft are flying to attend to “admin” tasks like eating!

Once your aircraft is “Crew-Ready,” we practice the ground show or work other maintenance until “Crew-Show.” The pilots will fly their final sortie of the day and land in the late afternoon. During this time, swing-shift maintainers are having their Roll Call for the evening’s maintenance.  Swing-shift is predominately a much leaner crew with a focus of maintenance. They will tackle the heavy maintenance issues of the day, along with scheduled maintenance items that require more time. These midnight maintainers will work well into the night to prepare for the next flying day. It is not unusual for them to watch the sunset, and watch it rise again before their work is done.

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This is how life goes, Monday through Friday. During the training season, we are grateful to be home for dinner every night, but the days are long as the pilots seek to meet the expected level of perfection, and we maintainers seek the same in our work on the ground.

The next installment takes a look at life of the road during the show season, and demonstrates the various differences in schedule and routine. Don’t go away!

(Featured photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)