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Air Guard opens F-16 maintenance school in Arizona

Senior Airman Sean McKinney, a crew chief in training from the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 177th Fighter Wing, gets his first hands-on experience with an F-16 Fighting Falcon on the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base flightline June 15. MicKinney and seven other Air National Guardsmen make up the first class to attend the Tucson Aircraft Maintenance School operated by Arizona’s 162nd Fighter Wing. (Air Force photo by Maj. Gabe Johnson)

Senior Airman Sean McKinney, a crew chief in training from the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 177th Fighter Wing, gets his first hands-on experience with an F-16 Fighting Falcon on the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base flightline June 15. MicKinney and seven other Air National Guardsmen make up the first class to attend the Tucson Aircraft Maintenance School operated by Arizona’s 162nd Fighter Wing. (Air Force photo by Maj. Gabe Johnson)

Tech. Sgt. Jeff Bentley, an instructor with the Tucson Aircraft Maintenance School, shows students around an F-16 Fighting Falcon on the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base flightline June 15. The first eight students to attend the school will graduate Aug. 17 as crew chiefs for their respective Air National Guard fighter units. The new school, operated by Arizona’s 162nd Fighter Wing, will allow more Guardsmen to receive necessary training in a timely manner. (Air Force photo by Maj. Gabe Johnson)

Tech. Sgt. Jeff Bentley, an instructor with the Tucson Aircraft Maintenance School, shows students around an F-16 Fighting Falcon on the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base flightline June 15. The first eight students to attend the school will graduate Aug. 17 as crew chiefs for their respective Air National Guard fighter units. The new school, operated by Arizona’s 162nd Fighter Wing, will allow more Guardsmen to receive necessary training in a timely manner. (Air Force photo by Maj. Gabe Johnson)

DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- New Air Guard F-16 mechanics currently faced with the possibility of waiting up to two years for formal training courses will soon see their wait time drastically reduced by a new training program here.

The first class of aspiring F-16 Fighting Falcon crew chiefs reported June 1 to the newly-formed Tucson Aircraft Maintenance School run by the Arizona Air National Guard's 162nd Fighter Wing, an F-16 training unit that specializes in international pilot training.

Crew chiefs, usually assigned to a specific aircraft, are maintenance specialists ultimately responsible for every component from nose to tail. In addition to launching and recovering fighters, they ensure the overall safety and readiness of the Air Guard's fleet and are arguably the backbone of the F-16 community's homeland defense, training and operational missions.

"The National Guard Bureau asked the 162nd to start this program because the Air Force's technical training school for F-16 crew chiefs couldn't fit enough Guard seats into its training plans for 2009 and 2010," said 2nd Lt. James Barnett, officer in charge of the new schoolhouse.

"There are about 160 Air Guardsmen across the country waiting for training, so we've partnered with the Air Force's tech schools to service the demand for training. This first class represents about a year of planning and coordination with NGB and the Air Force."

Standard crew chief training takes new active duty, Guard and Reserve Airmen from basic training through a month of maintenance fundamentals at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, then two and half months of F-16 specific training also at Sheppard. The third and final phase is a month of hands-on training with F-16's at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.

The first eight students at the Tucson school are in the midst of F-16 specific training. So far, they've learned safety procedures and how to fill out maintenance forms. June 15, their first day servicing an F-16, was long anticipated.

"Today we're going to put hydraulic fluid into the aircraft, we're going to service the aircraft accumulator and we're going to learn about the flight control systems. We learned all this in the classroom yesterday and now we're putting hands on the jet to actually do it," said Senior Airman Marc Haven, a maintainer from the 169th Fighter Wing in Columbia, S.C.

"I have a background as a mechanic, but I've never worked on anything as cool as an F-16," he said. "It's a big responsibility. It's our names on the side of the jets. We just have to remember to be safe out here and treat the jets like we're the ones flying them."

The schoolhouse uses a single F-16 from the 162nd's fleet for training. Built in 1983, it was slated for storage at Davis-Monthan's Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, also known as the boneyard. The program gives it two more years of life. Though its flying days are over, it's configured for safe maintenance training and is helping seasoned instructors teach the next generation of Air Guard crew chiefs.

Tech. Sgt. Jeff Bentley from the District of Columbia Air National Guard's 113rd Fighter Wing, previously taught a fighter maintenance course at Langley Air Force Base, Va., and Tech. Sgt. John Acquart from Arizona's 162nd, taught the F-16 course at Sheppard before joining the Guard.

"The students are very intelligent and eager to get out there to be mechanics for their units," said Sergeant Acquart. "I enjoy teaching and passing on what I know to fellow crew chiefs."

"Our instructors are very knowledgeable in their career field," said Lieutenant Barnett. "They show a lot of enthusiasm in the classroom. They take their time to make sure everyone understands the material. We are very fortunate to have those two individuals teaching this course right now."

After the first class graduates Aug. 17 they will return to their home units for 30 days of hands-on experience instead of heading to Luke for their final phase of training. By 2011 the 162nd's goal is to teach all three courses - fundamentals, F-16 specific training and hands-on training said Barnett.

By complimenting the technical schools at Sheppard and Luke, the Air Guard program may help resolve many issues.

Without formal training, new recruits are restricted from on the job training due to liability and regulations, bonuses are delayed, promotions becomes difficult, and retention ultimately suffers.

"This new school is wonderful because I signed on six months ago and when I got to my squadron they first told me that I could get a class date in 2012. I wasn't looking forward to sitting in a shop - doing nothing for two years. When they told me I could come here I was ready to go," said Staff Sgt. Robbin Bruning, a maintainer from the 140th Fighter Wing at Buckley Air Force Base, Colo.

"I'm excited about getting qualified," said Bruning. "I like having full roam of the aircraft. We're working with the pilots in the middle of the action. We're responsible for the whole plane, and we get to work outside."