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Hill airmen compete to be 'best of the best'

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Loading a quarter-ton missile onto a state-of-the-art fighter jet can be nerve-wracking even during "friendly" competition, yet a few elite U.S. airmen put their skills to the test Friday for the chance to have themselves called "the best of the best."

Three three-person teams of Hill airmen from the 388th Fighter Wing vied for the coveted title of weapons load crew of the year. The crews from the 388th Fighter Wing’s 4th and 34th Aircraft Maintenance Units matched their skills against each other loading 500-plus-pound laser-guided munitions into F-35 weapons bays to determine the wing’s top weapons loaders. The teams were evaluated based on a strict set of criteria, including best all-around time and precision, explained Chief Master Sgt. Eric Markel, weapons manager for the 388th Fighter Wing.

"It's the 'Super Bowl' of weapons loading," he said. "They showcase their abilities on loading weapons in a safe, secure and reliable manner."

For the competition, the teams are judged heavily on attention to detail and precision regarding every step of the installation process. He said weapons loading is a critical component of the warfighting effort, allowing U.S. Air Force pilots to accomplish their mission of using munitions to aid the overall efforts of U.S. military and its allies to defeat their enemies.

"In supporting ground troops and taking out targets, we need weapons to execute the missions," he added. The crews are tasked with loading each missile on the aircraft into bays along each wing of the jet where they are ready to be deployed as needed, Markel said. Each aircraft can carry up to six weapons.

While the teams go against each other during the competition, he said the exercise is also a way to instill camaraderie among fellow airmen who all have the same end goal in mind.

"At the end of the day, if one crew wins over another, the other crew is going to be just as happy for them (as for themselves) because we're all brothers in arms and they're going to be working side by side with each other when the mission drops," Markel said. "It's good to have a lot of really good loaders working together."

Senior Airman Deshone Davie, 30, said competing against his fellow airmen is a challenge he relishes, despite the potentially dangerous nature of the work they do as handlers of large-scale military explosives.

"It can be a life-or-death situation if something does go wrong," he said. "You take that into account and go forward from there knowing that if you are safe and paying attention to what you're doing (that) you can go about it without anyone getting hurt."

Though the competition is a way to maintain proper readiness for the nation's warfighting capabilities, he said they also are very aware of the importance of their mission as weapons loaders.

"Our job is to put 'warheads on foreheads.' That's what we do (in combat)," Davie said. "(Our goal) is to make sure that our pilots and allies don't get injured or hurt and everything works like it's supposed to."

He said the competition means a lot to himself and his fellow airmen who work diligently all year round to be at peak readiness if ever called upon. He also admitted that while competing is fun, winning would certainly be a worthy achievement.

"I like having 'hardware,' having generals and colonels knowing my name and my face," he said with a smile. "It makes my family proud. And knowing that if we do go (into combat) I could impact that — being known as someone that's reliable."

Staff Sgt. Kayla Bruns, weapons load crew chief for the 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, said while working on bombs can be scary to some people, she is motivated by the challenge of doing such an important job critical to the warfighting effort.

"It's a fun job," she said. "We don't just get to work on the planes, we get to work on bombs. To me, I find it (interesting)."

She also acknowledged her appreciation for the opportunity to serve as a leader in the weapons loading competition.

"Honestly, it feels really good. I didn't think I would ever get the chance to be in this position," Bruns said. "When I first started I wasn't really very good. But I've come a really long way. I've got a really good crew behind me and it felt really good to make it this far."

The winners of the competition will be announced at a ceremony in February.