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Swamp Fox maintainers adapt and overcome harsh arctic conditions in Sweden

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jim St. Clair
  • 169th Fighter Wing/Public Affairs

After years of perfecting how to operate in overseas desert environments, the Swamp Foxes from the South Carolina Air National Guard (SCANG) flipped the script by deploying to northern Sweden for Arctic Challenge Exercise (ACE) 19. Unpredictable weather, the remote location and unexpected major maintenance difficulties provided Swamp Fox maintainers plenty of problems to work through during their three-week TDY in support of the Nordic exercise. 

For starters, just getting to Sweden was a challenge. Moving a dozen F-16s, nearly 200 personnel plus two U.S. Air Force C-17s and a Boeing 747 worth of equipment anywhere isn’t easy. But deploying halfway around the world to a country you’ve never been makes it that much harder. Once the SCANG arrived, getting used to operating in constantly changing weather conditions as well as supply complications kept the maintainers on their toes. 

“The two biggest challenges we’ve had are first the weather changes pretty quickly. It will go from a warm sunny day to very cold and rainy. The temperature might be in the high 60s in the morning and then by afternoon it might be 45 degrees and rainy. Also there’s the parts availability. It’s not an F-16 base and it’s not a U.S. base. So we have to very diligently monitor our supply chain and we have to quickly order parts and have them shipped here because it takes a while to get parts here,” said Lt. Col. Brian Doyle, the 169th Deputy Maintenance Group Commander and Maintenance OIC for ACE 19. 

During ACE 19, a typical day of flying entailed two “gos” of eight jets; one in the morning and one in the afternoon, according to Doyle. “It’s day-shift type flying. The fly window is a bit longer than we’re used to. We fly a single go in the morning. We turn the jets about two to three hours later for a second go. And then in the afternoon we focus on fixing the aircraft. We have sort of a pseudo night shift which comes in later and they work on the aircraft after flying to get them ready for the next day,” he said. 

Primary maintenance goal: “Keep ‘em flying”

The maintenance team’s main goal is to keep the jets flying and finding creative solutions when unexpected problems arise. 

“On the maintenance side we have great interaction with the Swedish maintainers. Really it’s more about us operating out of a site with limited parts and no F-16s so it’s good practice for us to see what we’re missing and how we overcome challenges,” Doyle said.

ACE 19 presented Swamp Fox maintainers some particularly thorny wild cards to deal with; back to back issues that they might not see in an entire year let alone within a week’s time. First, maintenance discovered a problem which grounded one of the jets and will require a full wing replacement. And if that wasn’t enough, just days later another jet suffered a lightning strike which also will require major repairs. 

Slow is fast

Although one of McEntire’s jets is now indefinitely grounded, it really is a good news story in the end. Thanks to Tech. Sgt. James Williams’ diligence, a small clue he detected during a routine post-flight inspection of an F-16 wing resulted in the discovery of a critical maintenance issue, according to Senior Master Sgt. Charles Bowen, Maintenance Project NCO for ACE 19. 

“Sgt. Williams was doing a walk-around and noticed that something just didn’t seem right to his eye. He got [Master] Sgt. Gerald Nicklow over and they looked at it and one of the flap seals was bulging. That’s when they decided to remove the flap seal and found the damage to the actuator,” Bowen said.

Williams caught a problem that could have had catastrophic results if not discovered in time. “The jet could have flown a couple more times but eventually the leading edge flap (LEF) would have locked in either the up or down position which dramatically changes the aerodynamics of the aircraft. It could have caused an out of control condition. Talking to some of the senior pilots, one of the few times they’ve crashed in the simulator is during an LEF lockout,” Doyle said. 

Bowen noted that this maintenance win is all due to their “slow is fast” philosophy. 

“Instead of rushing through something that we quite possibly could have missed, slow it down. Because slow will eventually equal fast on the back side of things. To me, [Williams and Nicklow’s] attention to detail and paying attention to what doesn’t look right possibly saved a multi-million dollar asset and quite possibly a life a well,” said Bowen.

For his efforts, SCANG Detachment Commander Lt. Col. Michael Ferrario coined Williams and recognized him as an ACE 19 superior performer. Chief Master Sgt. James Revels also presented Williams with a Chief’s coin for his outstanding performance. 

Replacing the wing

Once the LEF problem was detected, then the real work started. After consulting with maintenance personnel back at home station as well as engineering experts at the Hill Air Force Base depot, the path forward requires a complete replacement of the F-16’s wing. And the project will trigger a bunch of firsts for the SCANG as well: first wing replacement overseas, first wing replacement at a non-F-16 base and first wing replacement relying heavily on USAFE support, Doyle said. 

He continued and noted replacing a wing is “one of the most difficult maintenance tasks to do because all the maintenance shops have to be involved at one point or another to do tasks on the wing. The Swedes have been outstanding. They have offered us hangar space and the ability to park the jet down there for the long term. It’s probably going to be a good month and a half maybe two months of maintenance to remove the wing, to move the components off the old wing to the new wing and then to install the new wing onto the aircraft. It’s a very complex task and requires a lot of steps, a lot of time, a lot of special stands and special tools,” Doyle said. 

In order to get the project done, Doyle and a dozen maintainers will remain behind after the SCANG returns home. Then personnel will be rotated in and out until the project is complete and the F-16 can safely fly back to McEntire. 

A bolt from the blue

Just days after the wing issue cropped up, another major maintenance issue arose thanks to a lightning strike. Thankfully the pilot was unhurt and the affected jet was able to land without incident. 

“On final, one of the aircraft was flying through normal looking clouds and a massive lightning strike hit the nose and the electricity made its way through the aircraft and exited from the upper part of tail,” Doyle said. 

After landing and being towed back, the maintainers were able to open up the jet and inspect the damage from the lightning strike. 

“It looked like it damaged a number of components in the nose of the aircraft and on the inside. We also found that the lightning actually damaged the rudder. It looked like it arced on the tail and superheated the composite material and blew out some material on the tail. So that drove a rudder change because of the bearings,” Doyle explained. 

Since one of the jets will have to stay behind for the wing replacement anyway, Doyle’s team decided to use some of the components from that aircraft in order to get the other one flight worthy for the trip home this week.

Summing it all up, ACE 19 project officer, Maj. Shaun Hoeltje, said: “We’ve definitely had our share of challenges primarily because of two things. First, maintenance. We have an airplane that’s hard broke and another that’s almost hard broke. So we’ve had those challenges to overcome. And that makes it hard for [maintenance] to produce the airplanes at times. And then, second, we’ve had the weather. The weather up here is harsh and it’s difficult conditions. It makes it difficult to operate but it’s good training and a good learning experience.”