Aircrew Flight Equipment saves lives, keeps pilots flying

LAUGHLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --

For the men and women of Laughlin Air Force Base who specialize in the mechanical repair of our aircraft’s parachutes, suits and oxygen delivery systems, ‘life-saving’ is not a buzzword in an instruction manual or a pronoun used to label a piece of equipment. 

For them, the Laughlin Aircrew Flight Equipment shop, life-saving is their job, their sense of pride, and their great accomplishment every time a pilot completes a sortie unharmed.  ‘life-saving’ is a mission that extends not only to Laughlin’s pilots, but pilots across our entire Air Force.

“Everything you do, day in and day out, is not something you take for granted,” said Tech. Sgt. Nicholas Jiles, the NCO in charge of AFE, “Every time they suit up, you’re saving their life.”

From the precision of measurements needed to fit the pilots for their helmets and flight suits to the random quality control tests done multiple times daily on all safety equipment, the Laughlin AFE shop ensures their work is done promptly and effectively.

“When pilots exit with their equipment to go out onto the flight line, we touch,” said Jiles. “Anything those guys look at could cause a pilot to die, so that’s why their attention to detail is critical.”

The mission is no different across the hall where Tommy Sondag, parachute ops technician for the 47th Operations Support Squadron, neatly and orderly presses parachute lines into an L-shaped block to coil perfectly into a parachute canister.  Sondag and his team will go on to ready about 100 parachutes a year, packing about three parachutes a day.

“It’s important that they’re folded the right way with the proper increments and measurements,” said Sondag.  “You want to make sure you do the job correctly so, forbid something happens, you did everything you could do.”

It’s completing the far-reaching task expected of them by their pilots and leadership every day that helps not only the Laughlin AFE Airmen’s mechanical and technical skills, but also fosters self-growth, confidence and tradesman development.

“I’ve watched these Airmen go from still-in-training to Airmen I can trust to work on the night-shift and be good to go the next day,” said Jiles. “It’s almost like when you have kids and you watch them grow up.”

Technical skills, confidence, and an overwhelming sense of duty are traits that are not only recognized by Laughlin’s student pilots and leadership but also by bases across our Air Force.

“They saved the busiest test support fleet in the entire Air Force from incurring downtime,” said Maj. Nicholas Helms, the former director of operations for the 586 Flight Test Squadron from Holloman AFB, New Mexico. “They preserved capacity for us to help keep our mission going.”

Holloman AFB’s fleet of T-38C incurred a required upgrade to their ejection seats that, without the help of Laughlin’s AFE Airmen, would have left the aircraft grounded.

“The Laughlin AFE shop and leadership were gracious, patient and empathetic,” said Helms.  “They were the only out of five bases to say ‘yes, we can help you.’”

The AFE shop wasted no time assisting Holloman when requested with the inspections and maintenance of their parachute ejection systems and survival kits.  Within no time, they were in the skies and ready to fly once again.

“We appreciate the flexibility to support another command,” said Lt. Col. Robert Odom, commander of the 586 FTS.  “Their capacity helped us through a transition period.”

From the skies of Holloman all the way back to Laughlin, the profound role the AFE shop plays in our operations is one that is appreciated by many of pilots and will continue to exist as long as the Air Force’s aircraft are still flying.

“We are the reason why they are flying,” said Staff Sgt. Justin Berry, a flight safety equipment technician for the 47th OSS. “Just because you don’t see it or it’s not palpable, it’s still incredibly important and a very awesome job.”