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Scheduler bridges Air Force maintenance, operations

By David Bedard | 3rd Wing | June 16, 2017


In the Tetris puzzle game, the player takes variously shaped four-tile combinations streaming down like a waterfall and decides how to fit them into the multicolored floor, clearing a line when it is complete.

The pace makes the task easy enough at first, but eventually the game logic will overwhelm the player by speeding up the rate the shapes shoot down the pipe.

Soon enough, decisions on how to match the jigsaw pieces can't be made fast enough, the stack reaches the ceiling, and it's game over.

To an outside observer, 3rd Maintenance Group Planning Scheduling and Documentation Airmen's task – planning scheduled maintenance for 3rd Wing's dozens of aircraft while fully supporting operations – may seem like a bout of Tetris.

Airman 1st Class Cerina Cleveland, a maintenance scheduler with the 962nd Aircraft Maintenance Unit, said she relishes the responsibility and the challenges in reconciling the requirements to keep Air Force iron in tip-top shape while ensuring the wing's pilots get the flight hours they need to fly the mission.

“I'm the liaison between maintainers and pilots,” said Cleveland, a native of Los Angeles. “I have to be in constant contact with operations as well as maintenance.”

In a brightly lit office stashed in a hangar nestled close to the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson flightline, Cleveland peers daily into her dual computer monitors, carefully culling data from the Internet-based Information Data Management System.

Aircraft usage is plugged into IMDS, and the system crunches the numbers to determine when scheduled maintenance is due. She takes this data, which includes a detailed listing of procedures intelligible to a privileged few, and translates it into information that is useful to decision makers throughout the wing.

The task sounds simple enough, but Tech. Sgt. Cristina Hill, 90th Aircraft Maintenance Unit PS&D noncommissioned-officer-in-charge, said Cleveland's work supports a complex schedule of flight operations and is seen at the highest levels of the wing's command.

“It's not just her making a decision and then putting it on paper,” Hill, also a native of Los Angeles, said. “The commander reviews it and signs it every week.”

Cleveland said it took a while before she became accustomed to meeting with senior officers on a near-daily basis.

“Doing this job, I get to talk to high-ranking people that I never thought I would sit across a table from,” she said.

Responsibility and powering through challenges were things Cleveland said she had to assimilate quickly when she joined the Air Force.

The Airman had ambitions to be a veterinarian and was planning to attend university at Texas A&M. However, her mother told her she would have to pay for college the same way she did – by earning it.

Her intended path to a college degree led straight through the Air Force. She joined after graduating from high school and attended Basic Military Training during the height of the holiday season. She said missing Thanksgiving and Christmas was especially challenging.

“There were a lot of times I thought I made a mistake,” Cleveland recalled.

But she was on the right path. Any nagging doubts of whether or not she made the right choice joining up evaporated in the final stages of BMT when she took account of what she was accomplishing.

The challenges didn't stop upon graduating from technical school at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. For an Angeleno accustomed to palm trees and perennially sunny days, Alaska was a frigid awakening.

“I didn't even know this place existed,” Cleveland said of JBER, an Air Force bastion in the north, before lamenting the past cold winter. “It's getting warmer, which is a whole lot better than when I got here in the winter.”

Throughout Alaska's seasons, Cleveland is responsible for the scheduling of E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft at JBER. Based on the venerable but aging Boeing 707 jetliner, the iron birds mount a flying-saucer-like radome, which grants commanders a nearly omniscient picture of the airspace.

Because of their critical mission and the fact there are only four Sentries assigned to the Pacific Air Forces, closely managing their maintenance and operational readiness is especially important. With far more F-22 Raptors assigned to the base, there is more flexibility in swapping out fighters for maintenance. In contrast, managing the E-3 requires an almost symphonic level of coordination.

When an E-3 is scheduled for major maintenance that cannot be supported locally, it travels to Tinker for a “tail-swap” exchange. The maneuver is tantamount to pulling out a table cloth and leaving all of the dishes unmoved. Cleveland said she informs operations as well as maintenance months in advance. She then calls her counterpart at Tinker and further coordinates with their operations and maintenance personnel.

When the planes are finally swapped out, the impact to operations is minimal.

With so much at stake, Hill said it's a lot of responsibility for a junior Airman. Based on Cleveland's past performance working with fighters, the technical sergeant said she felt Cleveland was equal to the task of managing 3rd Wing's Sentries on her own.

Hill said being able to work independently from the beginning of their careers is a hallmark of PS&D Airmen.

“We don't have the luxury to allow them to sit in the back and watch us work,” the NCO said. “They're the ones doing the work. They're the ones making the decisions for the maintenance group and the 3rd Wing. It's a huge responsibility, and they know that.”

Cleveland said taking on such a responsibility right out of high school will place her in good stead when she finally makes her way into a college classroom.

“I have always been a person who lives in the moment,” Cleveland said. “This job definitely helps me to be more organized and efficient with my time.”

As fast as the maintenance Tetris pieces move, Hill said Cleveland and her colleagues are prepared to always put them into the right place at the right time. It's a mission Cleveland said she understands is crucial.

“I feel like this is the best job for an [Airman] coming in, because we have so much responsibility that others don’t have coming in, and a lot of people rely on us,” she said.


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