Tinker group repairs aircraft in the heat of battle
Whenever an aircraft takes a hit on the battlefield, it's Tinker Air Force Base's 76th Expeditionary Depot Maintenance Flight that sets off overseas to get it back in the air.
Their primary mission is Aircraft Battle Damage Repair. They're the smallest of three units that do such work across the entirety of the Air Force.
The unit of 25 people — all currently men — operate under the guidance of Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Opp. They work with aircraft engineers to find fixes in tough conditions.
"We're kind of like a Band-Aid. We're like the firemen for aircraft maintenance," Opp said.
"The main part of our mission is all overseas. Nobody is shooting aircraft in the states or over in England or anything. These are all in Afghanistan and Iraq and the bases we have over there," he said.
Opp supervises four teams of six people each, three sheet metal workers and three crew chiefs.
Typically, a team has about 72 hours to respond to a war zone when they've been called up for service. A quick check of training requirements, medical clearances and plane tickets are usually all that stand between them and work in a combat zone.
"Some of these repairs, you're only looking at a couple hours to fix. That's easy. But most of the time when we get tagged, it's a bigger one. When a round goes through there (an aircraft) and explodes, it doesn't look that bad on the outside. It's when you open the panel up, or cut it out, that you see everything destroyed behind it," Opp said.
The team has a trailer loaded with everything they need to get an aircraft back in the air.
"When we deploy, they have every tool, every piece of metal, every rivet, every fastener, every piece of tubing, every piece of cable, is in that trailer," Opp said.
Even though each member has a special assignment, they all receive additional training.
"If you're out in a war zone, and it's really going off, my crew chief could be dead tomorrow, and all I've got left is a sheet metal guy, so everyone kind of cross trains on everyone else's stuff," Opp said.
Technical Sgt. Lance Green is in charge of that training, which is required once a year but each member goes through twice.
Green specializes in sheet metal work.
"We're pretty much split right down the middle between the sheet metal guys who do structural repairs and your crew chiefs, which are kind of a jack of all trades. They'll do inspections, simple component replacements. While we're super-specialized on structures, they kind of have a general knowledge of the majority of the aircraft," Green said.
"If an aircraft receives battle damage downrange, our job is to get it back in the air as quickly as possible because we want to have the most aircraft available for combat sorties on that mission as possible," he said.
"When you're downrange, it's something that's structurally sound, but we can accomplish in a very rapid fashion. Simple. Quick. Get it back into the fight," Green said.
The members volunteer and are selected for periods of four years. Whenever they're not in war zones, they help check out older aircraft, do maintenance work on planes on bases, and train.
"It's controlled chaos, so we just start blowing holes where we know there's everything behind it," Opp said. "While we're doing this, during the exercise, we actually attack them while they're trying to fix airplanes and make it as real as possible."
In addition to loud noises, crew members are shot at with paintball guns.
And whenever everyone is caught up on work, Opp will authorize them to do volunteer work in the community, like manning soup kitchens and working with the food bank.
But the assignment definitely can take its toll with all the unknowns that come into working on the unit.
We want people that really want to be here, because we can be gone 200 days a year, and if you don't have a strong relationship with your family or a strong financial background, it can be detrimental," Opp said.