DYESS AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- --
It is 4:30 a.m. on the flightline at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. Coveralls replace the Airman battle uniform he wore on his drive to work. He doesn’t clock in because he has no set schedule. He comes in any time his aircraft requires his expertise.
Before the sun rises, a crew chief’s oil-covered hands already match the darkness of the sky. A critical yes-or-no question must be answered before a morning sortie, “Is this aircraft ready to fly?” This question is not answered by the four crewmembers with 30 years of combined experience, but by the crew chief.
This is how Senior Airman Nick Niro, 9th Aircraft Maintenance Unit B-1B Lancer assistant dedicated crew chief, described his daily role in the mission.
7th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chiefs have the responsibility of launching and maintaining the B-1 to ensure the capability to strike anytime and anywhere around the world. Their job-well-done is expected and relied upon by crewmembers, their families and the U.S. Air Force.
“I’m in charge of one of the most capable assets in the Air Force,” said Niro. “Our names are painted on the side of these [more than] $300 million machines for a reason. We sign the paper that says this aircraft is ready to launch, so we answer to anything involving its wellbeing.”
Launching a B-1 requires a crew chief to go through preflight inspections long before the pilots and weapon system officers arrive. They analyze the entirety of the aircraft including brakes, tire pressure and condition, landing gear, engines, exhausts, oil, fuel, flight controls, and more. Crew chiefs have specific technical orders, or T.O.s, they follow before launching. They refer to their T.O. tablets to ensure no steps are missed.
“We’re taught to never memorize our TOs,” said Niro. “Memorization could lead to disregarding the tablets. Even though our inspections become second nature after years of experience, we still follow them verbatim. This ensures we perform ‘good maintenance’ not ‘quick maintenance.’”
Good maintenance is by the book and has no set timeline for completion; it’s consistent, sound and effective and it’s the B-1 crew chief way of life, Niro said.
If their aircraft is determined as “ready to go,” the crew members enter the aircraft and begin going through preflight checks. During this process, the pilots communicate from the flight deck to the crew chief on the ground to ensure everyone is on the same page. When the B-1 is ready to be taxied, it’s marshaled by the crew chief, an art they master to direct pilots out of the idling position to the taxiway and proceed to the runway.
Assistant dedicated crew chiefs are usually senior airmen, and they are selected by skill, leadership and experience. They are mentored and guided by dedicated crew chiefs, who are staff sergeants and above and are usually seven-level technicians, said Tech Sgt. Dakota Normand, 9th AMU B-1 dedicated crew chief.
“An aircraft needs constant attention and maintenance,” said Normand. “I treat the B-1 with the same care and precaution as a baby. I often spend more time with my jet than I do my family. Before and after sorties, we inspect our aircraft to try to find any new or future maintenance required. We marshal our jets out and wait for their return.”
There’s no room for off days with the standards crew chiefs must live up to every day.
“I can’t even count how many times people have come up to me and thanked me for what I do because one of their family members fly,” said Normand. “It’s always an honor to be thanked for a job well done, but it also serves as a constant reminder that I’m depended on beyond measure. The Air Force needs bombs on target and crew chiefs to put bombers in the air and get them home safely.”
B-1 crew chiefs have four lives in their hands every time they perform their duties: the pilot, co-pilot and two weapons systems officers.
"Crew chiefs are core maintainers that have shown to be masters of their craft,” said Maj. Brian Guyette, 77th Weapons Squadron B-1 pilot. “They are problem solvers and the life blood of B-1 operations. As aircrew, we put our trust and lives in their hands. I am proud to be surrounded by the best the Air Force has to offer."
B-1 crew chiefs exemplify, “service before self,” with the sacrifices they make to ensure Dyess can meet the wing mission statement to feed the fight and kill targets. Their hard work reflects the B-1’s ability to provide global deterrence for the U.S. and its allies,
“When our aircraft needs work we’re here to ensure that it gets done,” said Niro. “Our supervision is flexible and gives me the opportunity to have a good social life outside of work, but sometimes I have to make the call myself to come in. If necessary, I come in on days off and even holidays to make sure my jet is mission ready. It’s an easy sacrifice because I love my job and the responsibility that comes with it.”
9th AMU leadership recognize hard work B-1 crew chiefs put in every day, and they appreciate their sacrifices when it comes to family life – often because many of them are familiar with that hard work and sacrifice themselves.
“When everyone else goes to bed, whether it's hot, cold, rain or snow, there are a maintainers on the line producing freedom,” said Senior Master Sgt. Edwardo Hernandez, 9th AMU assistant superintendent. “It’s these sacrifices that forge the true grit of crew chiefs. As a reflection of their outward appearing strength, an even stronger network of people live in their absence - the military family. People don't see the number of birthdays, baseball games, father-daughter and mother-son dances missed.”
Hearing about the success of the B-1 on the news makes all the sacrifices worthwhile, Niro said.
Most recently, the B-1s assigned to Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, made headlines while deployed to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. The B-1s played a key role in the April strike against chemical weapons targets in Syria.
“It’s great hearing about the good things B-1 crews out of Ellsworth did,” said Niro. “It makes me proud to be a part of this team. I can’t wait to have a direct impact on overseas operations like that.”
Whether it’s launching B-1s or maintaining them, crew chiefs are in direct connection to B-1 mission success. They exemplify that good maintenance leads to justice and deterrence.