Lifeline to the Flightline

U.S. troops are deployed all over the world and certainly during these trying times of war; headlines appear on a regular basis in the daily news. Headlines such as "Traffic Management Office (TMO) Airmen Keep People, Cargo Flowing," "Airmen Keep Iraqi Airways Clear," "Deployed Airmen, Soldiers Reach Out To Bedouin Children," "US Air Force C-130 Cargo Aircraft in Japan Loaded With Relief Supplies Will Deploy to Thailand." And it's no surprise to learn about the extent of the missions. Throughout the combat operations in Afghanistan, the Air Force has flown more than 39,650 airlift missions; missions that moved more than 418,000 passengers and more than 429,000 tons of cargo from the US to the Afghan theater of operations. Over the skies of America, airmen from the National Guard, Air Force Reserve and active Air Force participating in Operation Noble Eagle, a civil support mission, have flown more than 27,625 fighter, tanker and airborne early warning sorties and more than 7,000 aerial refueling missions over the past two years.

What we will not read in the headlines is the very simple yet crucial fact that not one of these missions would happen were it not for the thousands of men and women who have studied and worked diligently to earn the Air Force award of Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) 2A632, Apprentice, AGE mechanic, giving them the training and ability to maintain AGE, which supports those same aircraft systems that fly these missions. It is indeed true, "there is no air power without ground power."

According to Senior Master Sergeant Jeffrey Deynzer, AGE Flight Chief, Sheppard Air Force Base is home to the one and only AGE training program in the country offering 37 accredited hours through the Air Force's Community College of the Air Force. "We have detachments in other locations that provide continuation training beyond the apprentice and craftsman courses, but this school provides the only initial training function within the US," says Deynzer. "And when the students graduate our course, they are well on their way to an associate degree in this career field."

MISSION READY

The breakout of AGE originated at FE Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, where, 40 plus years ago, the focus was automotive; the fundamentals of working on gas and diesel engines and the "odds and ends" of generators. In 1958, the establishment of the Ground Power Equipment School began the long heritage of what we know today as the Aerospace Ground Equipment career field. After 35 years at Chanute AFB, Illinois, many bases were closing do to the Defense Base Realignment and Closure commission decision. In 1993 courses in AGE, jet engines and aircraft maintenance were transferred to Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, TX. "The AGE career field has developed into something unbelievable now," says Howard McKellip, retired AGE Chief and walking encyclopedia on the history of AGE. "Before we had small, simple generators, but as the aircraft has become more sophisticated, AGE and electronics technology have boomed."

The AGE program has progressed over the past 20 years from 48 days to the current 106 day "mission ready" apprentice course where everyday more than 340 plus students train and work on "live" equipment (equipment that is taken out on the flight line for actual use in the field) with a new class starting every week. A total of 1,100 students graduate in a typical year. Though close to 70 percent of the students are apprentice course students directly from basic training, the other 30 percent comprise an eclectic group from various backgrounds and/or components.

National Guard and Reserve members as well as prior service military personnel may decide to make a career change to AGE and return to school. International enlisted and officers from all parts of the globe including Egypt, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines need the specialized AGE training when their country has purchased aircraft from the US. "It's a great experience for the young student's right out of Basic," says MSgt Daniel Farquharson, Assistant Flight Chief, AGE. "They get to interact with a wide variety of individuals and learn about their experiences." To assist the international students with the language barrier, an English language school is offered at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio to develop their proficiency before entering training at Sheppard AFB.

In addition to the age and cultural differentia is the gender differentia. Thirty years ago, due to legislation, women were not permitted in any aircraft maintenance field. Today, between 20 to 35 percent are women, including four instructors within the AGE school at Sheppard AFB.

COMBAT AGE TEAMS

The AGE career field is divided into AFSCs that closely parallel a skilled tradesman in the private sector with the levels corresponding numerically, three through nine, to the trade levels of apprentice, journeyman, craftsman, superintendent, etc. In addition, it is one of the few military fields that have a mechanical/electrical duel entry perquisite within the four categories to be tested. The other two are general and administrative.

Typically, an AGE shop in the field is comprised of sections known as Combat AGE Teams (CATs) which support either aircraft maintenance or a base support function. Another AGE shop structure might include sections such as minor maintenance, major maintenance, periodic inspection (scheduled maintenance on the equipment) and pick up and delivery to the aircraft. The apprentice course which has 24 blocks of instruction and 53 instructors is divided into 4 CATs. In addition, six advanced courses supported by 11 instructors form the Advanced CAT. Starting in CAT I the process begins by introducing the fundamentals of the AGE career field. Progressing from CAT to CAT involves the introduction of more in-depth instruction on specific pieces of support equipment. In the end the students will need to know the mechanical and electrical inside and out for any number of pieces of equipment including bomblifts (used to load the munitions onto the aircraft), heaters, hydraulic test stands, air conditioners, air compressors and the self-generating nitrogen carts (SGNSC), etc.

However, it's a totally different generation of students coming through the schoolhouse doors than it was when many of these civilians' instructors passed through 20 to 30 years ago. "When I came through, 99 percent of the kids had already worked out of a toolbox," claims Mr. Michael Dow, Supervisor, Training Instructor. "Now, 99 percent of the students have never seen a toolbox. So the first thing we do in Block 2 is teach them what a hammer is, what a wrench is, a nut a bolt and a screw ? because most of them have never handled any of these things."

The school also takes into account that the students entering the curriculum today are a product of the "X-Box generation." In each of the 23 classrooms you will now find enhancements to the course supported by new technology.

These new technologies have replaced antiquated, one-dimensional training aides such as overhead projectors, poster board schematics and line diagrams; now the students can follow the exact route of the air flow in a bleed-air system or the air load valve on the A/M32A-60A generator set in an animated version that comes to life through the use of interactive courseware and Smart Board technology. As TSgt Saffell, designer of the animated program points out, "Instructors are quick to comment that a picture is worth a thousand words ... this is worth a million."

Similarly, in each of the 24 labs you will find state of the art equipment. For example, motor generators, which convert 60 cycle commercial power into 400 hertz, are being replaced with solid state frequency converters. "Right now the Air Force is negotiating the acquisition of a fully computerized hydraulic test stand," says Deynzer. "That's the way technology is pushing us. Pretty soon we are going to have a piece of equipment that doesn't have any valves; instead, it's going to be the push of a button." The instructors all agree, AGE has seen more change in the past five years than in the 25 years before that and is becoming as sophisticated if not more sophisticated than the aircraft it's supporting.

SYSTEMS TO SUCCEED

The AGE schoolhouse provides an environment that encourages every student to achieve personal and professional excellence, providing them with the education, equipment and training to perform at their best. The school's instructors demonstrate commitment to their students by incorporating a system designed with performance safety nets every step of the way.

Both enlisted and civilian instructors (the majority being retired Air Force with a previous career in AGE) are required to go through extensive training. However, in addition to their depth of knowledge in the field, it is necessary for them to have the breadth of knowledge in counseling. "Many of the students have good mechanical skills and even understand mechanical theory, but they have trouble adjusting to this technical training environment," says Deynzer. "We have programs here on base that can enhance their academic skills which provides them the tools to succeed."

The Wing Learning and Development Center is an initial program that students are required to attend prior to entering any technical training school here on Sheppard. Four one-hour classes make up a curriculum to assist students with study skills, test anxiety, time management and stress management. And with the enviable class size of a maximum of twelve students, the instructors may also provide after class hours of one-on-one tutoring. Two primary philosophies emphasized regularly throughout the six month course of instruction are "review yesterday's notes, review today's notes, preview tomorrow's material" and the troubleshooting process ? Recognize, Verify, Analyze, Isolate and Repair" (RVAIR); just a simple reminder to the students on how to study and perform the tasks necessary for AGE maintenance.

THE ROAD TO OPPORTUNITY

The AGE schoolhouse has trained more than 4,000 AGE mechanics deployed worldwide. Though their main purpose is to support aircraft, there missions are omnifarious. "We call it Aerospace Ground Equipment but we support so much more," explains Farquharson. "We've got Air Force AGE mechanics deployed throughout the world supporting everything from radar sites and communication sites, bare base operations, as well as supporting remote operational locations. It's impressive where our folks can go at a moments notice."

While visiting the base, I had the opportunity to witness a graduation ceremony where students receive their AGE certificates and learn where they will be reassigned for their service in the field. There they will test and develop the skills they have acquired at Sheppard for two, three, perhaps five years, returning to the AGE school to progress to the upper level resident craftsman course.

Stepping out of their everyday "camo" fatigues into their crisp and dapper blue uniforms, these men and women deserve to take pride in what they have accomplished in a very short six months and what they have yet to accomplish in the days, months and years ahead. With Sheppard's AGE training and the Air Force's core values that include "Integrity First - doing the right thing when nobody's looking," "Service Before Self" and "Excellence in All We Do," these young men and women are given a once in a lifetime opportunity.

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