KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. —
When it comes to maintaining aircraft, it doesn’t matter if the members of the 403rd Maintenance Group are at home at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, or at an off-station location, they get the job done.
“We have four of our WC-130J aircraft at Mather Air Field (California) flying atmospheric river missions right now,” Senior Master Sgt. Myra Trippe, 403rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron assistant superintendent, said in February. “Keeping them in working order to fly the missions no matter the challenges we face is what we do.”
The weather data collected during atmospheric river missions flown by the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron is used to improve forecast models for the West Coast. This data helps build a vertical profile of the water vapor in the low-level jet stream, which also provides the critical knowledge needed to improve reservoir operations that can supply water during droughts and assist with the control of water levels during potential flood events.
To keep the 53rd WRS aircraft flying at an off-station location, the maintainers bring most of their own equipment with them, but some challenges do pop up.
One recurring challenge is where to get liquid oxygen carts filled.
“We are having the LOX carts transported back and forth from Keesler during the crew rotations,” Trippe said. “Or we either have to generate a flight to fly the cart over to a local base, get it filled and bring it back.”
Both of these options were made more difficult by the extremely busy operations tempo posed by the atmospheric river missions. The first two weeks of January were very busy for both aircrews and maintainers with no time between flights. Many of the aircrew members and some of the maintainers were on a 16-day rotation, while some of the maintainers were on a 30-day rotation.
“The first rotation lasted 16 days, and we flew 15 of the 16 days with one mission cancelled for weather,” said Maj. Grant Wagner, 53rd WRS navigator and atmospheric river mission commander. “We launched 22 sorties during the first rotation, and we did not lose a single sortie due to maintenance.”
Wagner said the maintainers worked a grueling schedule, working 16 days straight with no breaks on both the day and night shift.
“We don’t really want to work the maintainers that many days straight with no relief, especially in the cold weather and rain,” Wagner said.
The weather was another challenge the maintainers constantly faced.
“When I was there the weather was a challenge, but that is what we train for,” said Master Sgt. Christopher Simmons, 403rd AMXS crew chief. “We have to be able to perform our job and our duties in any environment, no matter what the weather is like. Due to the cold, rainy weather, we had to worry about keeping our tools dry and keeping an eye on our work-to-rest ratio in relation to warming back up and staying dry ourselves.”
High winds were another problem. Without tie-downs for the aircraft, high winds during the atmospheric river mission caused the front wheels of aircraft to turn at times. With no tug or tow bar, the maintainers could not manually straighten the wheels and had to wait until the aircraft was ready to taxi to straighten the wheels.
“The high winds added additional work on top of regular maintenance,” Trippe said. “We had to include high-wind inspections to our standard maintenance checks before releasing the aircraft for flight.”
“This is the first time we have flown AR missions where we were actually inside the AR weather on the ground,” Wagner said. “But when it comes down to it, the maintainers did an excellent job. They were asked to do more than they could manage, and they did it to 100% effectiveness.”
(Kendziorek is assigned to the 403rd Wing public affairs office.)