Maintaining the hunt

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Rachelle Blake
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs
This week marks the monumental quarter of a century anniversary for the 55th Wing's RC-135V/W Rivet Joint presence in the U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility. The 1960s aircraft provides invaluable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to the Armed Forces, in turn helping to ensure the troops make it home safely.

None of this would be possible without the dedication and perseverance of its maintenance Airmen. These men and women work tirelessly, upwards of 12 hours a day, in 100-plus degree heat to guarantee the aircraft is operational and able to complete its mission.

They have been doing so since the RJ's arrival in the AOR on Aug. 9, 1990.  At that time, the sorties were flown from Saudi Arabia's Riyadh Air Base in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

In 1996, they transitioned to Prince Sultan Air Base and played a key role in Operation Southern Watch. One of Offutt's own maintenance troops was there to join the hunt and continues to serve the RJ mission today.

"I was deployed to Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, numerous times," said U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Jeffrey Salakar, 55th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron superintendent. "When it comes to maintaining the RJ, the same processes are still in place, but with some added training and checklist items."

The RJ continued to follow the fight with Operations ENDURING and IRAQI FREEDOM, and New Dawn, now with Operations Freedom's Sentinel and Inherent Resolve. According to U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Rick Brown, 55th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron assistant lead production superintendent, who has been a part of this unique mission for more than two decades, the years have taken a toll on personnel and assets.

"Manning numbers have been cut in half and we are definitely doing more with less," Brown said. "Also, these aircraft are 55 years old, so there are more hourly inspections in place than when I first came in."

On top of the work the maintenance personnel perform, the RJ's are also sent to the Big Safari depot in Greenville, Texas, where they receive modifications and repairs that can't be accomplished at home station. This may include stripping the paint and repainting, removing parts that need to be fixed, gutting the aircraft's interior or even overhauling landing gear, engines and flaps.

"There is a definite lack of parts and the aircraft is showing signs of wear," Salakar said. "The depot does a great job keeping these jets 'like new,' but some of the airframes are showing their years and flight hours. We are asking for more and more engineering assistance."  

Brown, who has seen the aircraft receive upgraded engines, electronic systems and technological advances, agreed with Salakar on the RJ's wear and tear.

According to Brown "Wires become brittle after a while and parts that are refurbished time after time do not always want to operate smoothly," he said. "These old airplanes seem to corrode a bit easier than the newer ones and not everything gets replaced during depot-level modifications. Some parts are rarely replaced and when they are, they sometimes do not agree with newer systems."

The RJ's maintenance technicians are up against a lot, but they are also determined.

"Civilian contractors, Airmen, NCO's and senior NCO's alike keep these ancient aircraft flying," said Brown. "Dedication to the mission and attention to detail prevents mishaps and keeps these RC-135's safe.  These people truly care."

This is apparent when looking at the aircraft's mission capable rates. Over the past 25 years, the RJ fleet has maintained a 75 percent average with an estimated more than 200,000 hours flown through more than 12,000 sorties.

Sooner or later, the aircraft may retire but the job will still be there.

"I think these missions will hold strong for many years to come; although, these aircraft will eventually have to be replaced," Brown said.

The nation's security is its driving factor.

"This is a valuable mission and will be vital in keeping our country safe," Salakar said.

As long as there is an RJ presence in the AOR, there will be maintenance Airmen there getting the job done.

"It has always been a combined effort from numerous individuals that I personally do not think are given due credit," Salakar said. "The sacrifices they make being deployed, away from their families, plays a toll. But they will return when asked to accomplish the mission."