Walk a mile in the boots of a maintainer

By Senior Airman Tryphena Mayhugh 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

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A bitter wind chases flurries of frost across the flightline, weaving around aircraft and stinging the faces of those who stand in its way. While many Airmen are still asleep in their beds, the Airmen of the 721st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron are already awake and reporting for duty.

The first stop for Staff Sgt. Zachary Rodewig, 721st AMXS C-5 Galaxy crew chief, is to check the schedule to see how many aircraft are arriving and departing throughout the day and which ones he is assigned to inspect or repair.

“Other people can fly the planes, but it has to be able to fly before it’s going anywhere,” Rodewig said. “It has to have gas, tires, and it has to function properly. It’s a very important task we handle on a day-to-day basis.”

On average, 521st Air Mobility Wing’s 721st AMXS inspects, services, and repairs 30 aircraft in a single day. In one weekend, they are typically responsible for more missions than all the other squadrons in the European and Pacific Commands handle in a month combined. This makes them an integral part of the 521st AMOW’s mission.

“I’ve been to a lot of different bases and it’s very difficult as far as what is expected of you at Ramstein,” said Staff Sgt. Keith Varden, 721st AMXS C-17 Globemaster III crew chief. “You have to work two airframes and we have an incredible amount of air traffic coming through. You’re not going to see more work as a maintainer than you will see here.”

With the sun barely peaking over the horizon, 721st AMXS Airmen step into sub-freezing temperatures with their gear to begin their first job for the day. Rodewig’s first scheduled aircraft isn’t until later in the morning, so he comes along to lend a hand.

The aircraft is a C-17 that needs a panel underneath one of the wings to be replaced. Despite a few challenges, such as damaged equipment and the awkward shape of the panel, they are able to bring it up to its spot and set it in place. Light snow flurries fall around them as they toil away.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or snowing, someone has to be out there,” Rodewig said. “Even if it’s not a hard task to do, it’s a thousand times more difficult and a strain on your body when you’re in the rain or it’s below freezing.”

This morning it is a panel that needs to be replaced, but any given day can show the 721st AMXS Airmen repairing electrical work, hydraulics, fuel cells, changing tires, and more for both C-17 and C-5 aircraft.

“It takes a lot of personal integrity to make sure you’re doing everything the way you’re supposed to,” Varden said. “When there’s so much work the temptation is there to cut corners so you can be done in a timely manner. Everybody stresses more than anything to take the time to do what you need to do. If the plane goes late, the plane goes late. It’s difficult sometimes to balance an effective work rate to get all the work done and be safe.”

Rodewig moves on to another C-17 to help those Airmen inspect it. He checks that all the lights work, the expiration dates for equipment, makes sure there isn’t anything hanging or broken inside, and picks up trash.

With so much to inspect and possibly repair for each aircraft, the mobility maintainers try to help out one another to clear aircraft for a faster departure.

“We try to group up like a mass of white blood cells and attack the first plane that comes down so we can get the inspections, maintenance, and servicing all done effectively,” Varden said. “If time allows, when the next plane comes down, the group moves on to the next one, and then the next one, and so on.”

The sun has refused to show its face from behind the clouds all day, oblivious to the Airmen running to and fro below as they race to complete their checks and repairs. A wind chill peaking at 14 degrees follows them everywhere they go, freezing noses, ears, and fingers.

“I like working under pressure,” Rodewig said. “When it’s go time, that’s all I’m focused on. I’m out here working fast, effectively, and safely; I get in the zone.”

Before Rodewig can complete the inspection on the C-17, he is called to catch an incoming C-5, his next assignment for the day. He and other Airmen marshal the plane to its spot, chock the wheels, plug it into a generator, check tire pressure, refill oil, and refuel the aircraft.

With every breath the Airmen take, vapor rises from their mouths and drifts into the frosted air as they move around the C-5, ensuring everything is as it should be.

“I didn’t really think about the people who work on an aircraft until I started working on them, and you realize you better put a lot of trust in the people who do,” Rodewig said. “Sometimes when you do heavy maintenance on an aircraft, people are relying on you to make sure you do it right. I take a lot of pride in that.”

Maintainers at Ramstein have to have an in-depth knowledge of both C-17 and C-5 aircraft and be able to switch gears between working on one and then the other as they move through their shift.

“A lot of the career fields within maintenance require mechanical aptitude, patience, and intuition to figure out how systems operate and integrate with each other,” Varden said. “This is aerospace maintenance; it’s not just Jiffy lube. Though, we do have a relaxed environment that we can joke around, so when people are around us they tend to think we’re just a bunch of grease monkeys.”

The darkening sky hangs above Rodewig as he makes his way back to his squadron. It has been a so-called slow day for the 721st AMXS with only 15 inbound and outbound aircraft requiring their expertise.

After returning his gear and shedding some protective layers, Rodewig uses the remaining time of his shift to catch up on his administration work, something he doesn’t always have the opportunity to do.

Whether it’s repairing, inspecting, or servicing C-17 or C-5 aircraft, the 721st AMXS Airmen toil day in and day out to keep Ramstein and anyone who passes through here safe in the sky.


Editor's note: The original story can be viewed on the Ramstein Air Base website.