U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Christopher Graham, 3rd Wing crew chief, marshalls an F-22 Raptor on the flight line at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska May 5, 2020. The 90th Fighter Squadron and 90th Aircraft Maintenance Unit recently launched 168 sorties in four days, highlighting their rapid mobility capabilities and response readiness during COVID-19 and the ability to generate combat airpower at a moment’s notice to ensure regional stability throughout the North American Aerospace Defense Command Region and Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Westin Warburton) (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Westin Warburton)
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska —
Recently, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson’s 90th Fighter Squadron and 90th Aircraft Maintenance Unit logged a whopping 168 sorties in just four days.
“The 90th AMU/FS executed a ‘surge,’ where we deviate from our normal turn pattern, or amount of sorties flown in a single day, to a short-term, maximum-effort turn pattern to rapidly increase pilot proficiency in one or two specific skill areas,” said Lt. Col. Rob Morgan, the 90th FS director of operations.
“Due to the nature of JBER’s ‘no-fail’ missions supporting Alaska NORAD Region and combatant commander taskings, maintaining the readiness of 90th pilots and aircraft is absolutely crucial. Combine this requirement with the unique challenges presented by flying in Alaska – such as extreme weather conditions or reduced proximity to emergency airfields – and the importance of flying during the good-weather summer months cannot be understated.”
Despite the great weather, the current COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on JBER operations made some aspects of getting that gargantuan mission set done “extremely difficult,” Morgan said.
Almost all of the work must take place in secure areas due to the classified nature of F-22 Raptor operations. New workplace and aircraft cleaning requirements and social distancing were incorporated quickly to ensure operations were uninterrupted and COVID-19 transmission likelihood was reduced.
Airmen also formed teams to ensure that even if someone did become ill, that team could be quarantined with less worry the disease would spread.
Another major aspect of preparation for the sortie surge was conducting all scheduled maintenance in the weeks leading up to it, Morgan said. Instead of aircraft being shifted around with the regular routine maintenance, everything was done in one fell swoop, allowing the aircraft to simply fly during the surge.
“The weeks prior to the surge were the most difficult,” said Tech. Sgt. Dustin Kline of the 90th AMU. “Maintaining the health of the jets and ensuring that we had all the aircraft ready for the surge, while still flying our normal schedule, is where the success of the surge was ultimately decided.”
“Flying more than 30 sorties in a single day greatly stretches the ‘fly window’ (the period from first engine start to final shutdown) while simultaneously shortening the ‘fix window’ (the time from final engine shutdown to the following day’s start),” Morgan said. “In short, if a jet landed during the surge requiring maintenance attention, the 90th AMU was required to be on top of their game to ensure it was fixed as quickly as possible and ready to fly again the following morning.”
To reduce the number of maintenance issues and increase time in the air, the units used “hot pits” – leaving the engines running while refueling. Many maintenance issues arise due to the shutdown-and-restart cycle, so cutting the cycle out reduces problems, Morgan explained. Another advantage is the pilot having a short break to quickly process mistakes they may have made during the first sortie and immediately work to correct those mistakes just minutes later when they are back in the air.
Naturally, getting the jets back into the sky rapidly means more sorties can be done when fewer pilots are available.
Of course, getting all these sorties completed in such a short span of time is not without its challenges.
“A typical sortie for a 90th pilot is a multi-day affair,” Morgan said. “The day prior is spent in detailed mission planning and coordinating between all the assets (such as E-3, F-35A, and F-16C aggressors) to ensure maximum value is extracted.”
The day of the flight begins early with an extended briefing on all the details. Then comes the flight itself – anywhere from 45 minutes to eight hours of it. Then there’s a debrief, where the mission is recreated virtually to assess the effectiveness of both the plan and execution. The debrief alone can last more than six hours to fully instruct and correct every aspect of the mission.
“The surge required pilots to not only perform at peak physical levels for three times the average sortie duration of our most physically-demanding mission (basic fighter maneuvers, colloquially known as ‘dogfighting’),” said Morgan. “Immediately following this three- or four-hour mission, all pilots then spent the requisite time debriefing all three missions to the same standard of instruction.”
And of course, the maintainers who ensure the aircraft are ready to fly felt the strain as well.
“We took our time and checked each other to make sure our work was done right,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Tyler Ballantine of the 90th AMU. “Projecting air power as a unit and flight - and as teams - was a wonderful thing to see. Hitting all our numbers at the same time was even better.”
“The 90th AMU maintainers prioritized fixes, and the jets performed exceptionally well during this surge, allowing us to balance fleet health with mission criticality in order to execute all 168 sorties effectively,” said Air Force Capt. Austen Ebert, 90th AMU officer in charge. “The most important key to success is the relationship between Operations and Maintenance, and the ability to maintain a ‘give-and-take’ relationship to uphold the readiness of our combat operators while ensuring the sustainability and health of the F-22 fleet.
“During normal surge operations, it is expected that the health of the fleet begins to deteriorate over the week as more and more jets break. Typically, the final few days of a surge require an extraordinary amount of effort from both pilots and maintainers, and often a reduction in the number of flyable aircraft due to broken aircraft. Not only did the 90th AMU/FS fly out every single one of the 168 pre-planned sorties during their four-day surge, but going into the final fly day, the jets were as healthy as they were three days before – which is unprecedented and only underscores the sheer amount of preparation and dedication of the 90th AMU.”
Even during a global pandemic as well as increased air sovereignty intercepts, JBER’s ability to generate combat power on demand is absolutely unrivaled, Morgan said. The 168 sorties are testament to the incredible effort occurring behind the scenes on a daily basis across all levels of JBER: our Airmen quietly, confidently, and professionally go about their business of ensuring air dominance.