PORTLAND AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Ore. --
Runners crave the early morning trail run. Kayakers search for the epic flow of a Northwest river. But if you’re in the military, civilian weekend pursuits can look, well, a little tame.
For the airmen of the 142nd Fighter Wing, preparing and loading lethal air-to-air missiles on a hot tarmac is the thing to get the pulse racing.
As Tech. Sgt. Jay Aebi ushers the AIM missile toward its temporary home: a supersonic F-15 Eagle fighter jet, it’s a race against time. He’s got a small team sweating, swarming like bees in a coordinated dance, prepping and loading a nest of projectiles to its rightful owner.
“At the 142nd Fighter Wing, we are the tip of the spear and these fine men and women behind me sharpen the spear, said Col. Christopher Lantagne, 142nd maintenance group commander.
High-stakes weapons loading is a high-drama endeavor. Winner-take-all the glory.
Although there’s no monetary prize, being part of a weapons competition at the Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore. , held May 7, 2017 is a weapon’s loader’s dream.
The load competition brings three teams of weapons loaders together, creating a race with a tightly choreographed set of movements that essentially gets the deceivingly heavy munitions loaded underneath the wing of a jet as in a real-world deployment scenario.
“We’re prepping for the real world loading of aircraft in a deployed scenario, said Master Sgt. Damian Barnhart, aircraft armament systems mechanic for the 142nd Fighter Wing.
Though the weapons loading happens at a fast clip, there is a large margin of safety built into the process, a critical safeguard for the projectiles with destructive power.
“We’re always training for these things to be live. So anything unsafe could be catastrophic,” said Tech. Sgt. Elijah Olsen, aircraft armament systems mechanic for the 142nd Fighter Wing and evaluator for the competition.
Weapons loaders keep score: key metrics help decide who is allowed to prove their skills in the competition.
Olsen explained the set up, “the one man is the crew chief. He makes sure the team is loading correctly and safely and carries a clipboard with a detailed checklist, which he updates throughout the process. The two and three man prepare and load the aircraft.”
Since the early 50's weapons loading competitions have been a long-standing tradition with crews in the Air Force. These competitions were developed from load crews testing their skills and speed against each other while loading their aircraft for their next missions in the Korean War.
With a 57 minute maximum load time, weapons loaders prepared and loaded two AIM-9 Sidewinder, four AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles and chaff countermeasures.
In the end, a sweating Tech Sgt. Jay Aebi, 142nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, aircraft armament ordinance journeyman, and his 3-man crew took home bragging rights for the weapons loading competition, coming from behind to pull out the victory. He had this to say about how his team overcame a time deficit.
“We’ve got one of the best 3-man jammer drivers in the business out here. It really anchored us down and made us come through, said Aebi.