HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Whether America is at war or not, whether the maintenance men and women of the 421st Aircraft Maintenance Unit are deployed overseas or remain in northern Utah, their work remains exceptionally demanding.
"Day to day, our job is the same: combat mission capability," said Chief Master Sgt. Brian Janroy. "Our troops focus on keeping jets fixed so the pilots can fly."
That way, pilots get the training they need so that when they go onto a wartime footing, they can use the F-16s in the most efficient ways possible, delivering bombs or missiles to ground targets or enemy aircraft.
Hill military personnel briefed reporters on the base's duties Friday. As part of the tour, media from along the Wasatch Front visited a troop processing center, an F-16 flight line, a weapons hangar and a huge maintenance center.
"We have about 260 people that keep our squadrons flying," said Capt. Shawn Jones, commander of the maintenance unit. "There's a little over 60 aircraft on base, divided up into three squadrons, so you figure about 20 apiece."
Planes are serviced by crew chiefs, weapons specialists in charge of maintaining and loading the jet's weapons and avionics experts who work on electronics. "We get the job done to do whatever it takes to keep these things flying," Jones said.
On Friday afternoon, one of the things it took was a search on the runway for foreign objects that could damage a plane. Maintenance people were checking the pavement carefully.
"They're doing what's called the FOD (foreign objects damage) walk," Jones said. "They're looking for any foreign objects on the runway, whether it's a rock, whether it's a leaf, whether it's a twig."
Sometimes they may find bolts that have bounced off equipment.
"They go through and pick all of the stuff up. And by the time they get done walking the ramp, even though they do this every time before we fly, they'll have a whole bag of stuff they find."
Jones, originally from Dayton, Ohio, said if the material is not gathered up it could damage a plane.
"With F-16s in particular, you can see how low they sit to the ground. They're a bit of a vacuum cleaner. They'll pick up anything that's on the ground."
After a day of training over the Utah Test and Training Range, in the state's western desert, an F-16 is in for a round of careful inspections. The post-flight check usually takes two hours, with two maintenance people working on the jet. "And that's if everything works fine," he said. That is, if it "comes down and there was nothing broken in the flight."
They check pressure indicators to assure that nothing jammed up in the plane's systems during flight. They make sure filters are clean and inspect the exhaust. "They check the engine fan blades to make sure there's no damage to it," he said.
When an F-16 needs more extensive work, it goes through maintenance at Hill, which handles overhauls for all of the Air Force's "Viper" aircraft.
In one hangar, about a dozen F-16s and an assortment of looming, aging C-130 cargo planes were undergoing maintenance. Some were stripped down to bare metal. Others were nearly complete.
During the visit, reporters and photographers were treated to a demonstration of fancy flying by Capt. Julian Pacheco of Hill's 4th Fighter Squadron, 388th Fighter Wing. The F-16 "capability demonstration" featured low passes, slow flying where the plane seemed to hang suspended in front of the clouds, and extremely fast swoops and climbs.
Pacheco made the plane roll, circle, fly with wings vertical, loop and dive. With more than 1,200 hours in jet aircraft, 10 missions in support of Operation Southern Watch over southern Iraq and anti-terrorist patrols over the West, Pacheco was supremely in control.
The F-16 would fly 500 feet above ground, then would disappear from sight as it streaked upward to 17,000 feet altitude. It blasted by with a backdrop of a mountain snowfield, and when it circled, a fiery orange glow lit the exhaust.
"Ladies and gentlemen, from the right: the high-speed pass," announced a young officer at a podium, earplugs above his ears. Amplified electronic dance music played from the speaker. The plane snarled past, drowning out the music.
Afterward, responding to a question, Pacheco said he was never close to blacking out despite the 9-G (nine times to force of gravity) pressure the maneuvers occasionally exerted.