Generating Sorties: How to Keep Them Flying

Feb. 1, 1981
Two F-15C Eagles of USAF’s 36th Tactical Fighter Wing thread a path along the taxiways at Bitburg AB, Germany, en route from their shelters to the active runway. Pre-takeoff checks complete, they perch side by side on the threshold of runway 06. Their gray silhouettes blend into the gray sky background, but show up darker against the new snow.

At a signal from the leader, the four F100 engines on the two fighters roar louder, then both planes surge down he runway, leaping into the air together in less than one-fifth of the runway’s 8,200-foot length. Their airspeed accelerates rapidly at a shallow angle of attack, ad then both fighters pitch up sharply and disappear within seconds as they arrow into the gray overcast.

Ten minutes later, another pair of F-15s does the same. Still later, as the overcast has become broken cloud cover and the red winter sunset casts a pale glow over the western horizon, the first pair turns on final approach and lands, their main gear reaching like claws for the black porous friction surface of the active runway, touch it, then roll smoothly and turn onto the taxiway. The engines sigh at lower decibel levels as the aircraft begin the twisting journey to their dispersed shelters.

Darkness falls and two more F-15s take to the air, only their navigation and beacon lights marked their transition into the clouds that have once again obscured the sky. The training continues around the clock as the squadrons of the 36th TFW maintain readiness to fight and win if war comes to Europe.

Those six sorties launched into the cold winter sky over central Europe are typical of Air Force wings worldwide. They are the most visible result of activity that is seldom seen but without which US airpower could not maintain the deterrent of war.

That activity—rather, those activities—are the logistics and engineering functions worldwide. They are the facets of multibillion-dollar operations whose real reason for existence is to generate sorties as required by the national interest. Or, as the logisticians say, “To put bombs on the target,” emphasizing that logistics and engineering are not ends in themselves, but means to an end: the Air Force’s contribution to national purposes. Whether launching B-52s from Grand Forks, T-38s from Laughlin, F-111Ds from Upper Heyford, or whatever else the Air Force is doing, logistics and engineering make it possible.

The 36th TWF typifies the worldwide, ubiquitous functions of logistics and engineering, so Air Force Magazine uses them in this feature to represent activities that apply to every other wing. It followed the system to and from Bitburg to gain an appreciation of the organization and the people that make it possible for USAFE and Allied Air Forces Central Europe commands to rely on mission-ready F-15 sorties from the 36th.

Keystoners Provide the Platform

For the F-15s of the 36th TFW, Bitburg Air Base is the launching platform and the base to which they return to training. The activities of the 36th Civil Engineering Squadron (the “Keystoners”) establish and maintain the base and, if necessary in wartime, restore damage so it remains operational. Its 550 people, about half military and half civilian, keep the base going. Bitburg AB is an establishment of more than 1,200 acres, 450 buildings, the runways, ramps, and taxiways, and associated utilities and support systems. Acquisition cost of the base was a bit more than $100 million; its estimated replacement cost in 1980 dollars is nearly $400 million.

How does the 36th CES contribute to sortie generation? In many ways, both directly and indirectly. For example, it operates the base’s own water and sewerage systems, and is responsible for buying and distributing electricity from the German government. It also is responsible for the base housing, fire protection, and crash rescue services.

For fuel, the 36th CES maintains the pipeline, tank farm, and pumping systems that get the fuel into aircraft tanks either via hot point refueling (where four aircraft fuel up simultaneously) or from tank trucks that go to the aircraft for in-shelter refueling (normally eight trucks operating daily).

The aircraft shelters are maintained and modified by the wing’s civil engineers, as are the ramp areas around them. When the F-15s leave the shelters for operations, the taxiways they traverse are maintained by the engineers, and so are the runways. If the runways are damaged through enemy action, the engineers undertake rapid repair, having had teams trained at Ramstein Air Base for this function.

The four F-15s on air defense alert wait in the alert barn, a shelter provided by the engineers. When snow falls, the engineers sweep it off the porous friction course on the runways. If aircraft need to use arresting gear, three sets are ready to operate, thanks to the engineers. Similarly, the navigational aids around the base and environs are supported by the engineers, who also constructed and maintain the munitions storage areas from which the weapons for the F-15s emanate. In case of fire or rescue requirements, the “Keystoners” trained for those tasks go into action.

When aircraft or components return for maintenance on the base, the shops and hangars, the engine powercheck pads, and the administrative and living facilities are all the responsibility of the engineers. Should toxic chemicals escape or be inflicted on the base, the engineers’ decontamination teams are the ones who will limit the damage and clean up the mess. And when a self-help project is created to improve a building or working area, the engineers evaluate it, order the materials, assist by augmenting the skills in the using unit, then supervise the project through to completion and inspection for use.

Most of these functions are invisible when the F-15s take off and land (except the runway), but without them, the aircraft would be nothing more than static displays. With them, as even this cursory listing shows, the wing has a functioning platform for its aircraft.

Airlift is the Key

Airlift is the key to keeping the 36th TFW’s F-15s mission-capable and flying sorties wherever needed. As so many people explained to Air Force Magazine, the current airlift system managed by Military Airlift Command (MAC) for its worldwide customers has cut the so-called “pipeline time” dramatically. That was the time that parts took to move through the pipeline from vendor to depot to port to theater to using unit, and it could take months.

Now, the “order and ship time” for F-15 parts designated by MACAP (required for mission-capability), is less than thirteen days. For highest-priority parts, that time can be slashed to 2.5 days. That means time elapsed from the 36th’s placing the order until it is received for installation on the aircraft. Within all of USAFE, about 30,000 requirements per month are ordered for its tactical aircraft, and about then percent of that number are MICAP items. If the items are not held in unit stocks within USAFE, they must come from the US, and that’s where Military Airlift Command makes the difference.

The aerial port Dover AFB, Del., handles much of the cargo for units in Europe, including the 36th TFW. The 436th Military Airlift Wing at Dover operates the USAF C-5 Galaxy transports through the port, but also handles large numbers of additional transient aircraft such as USAF C-141s and contract-carrier 747s, and other transports. Almost every day, for example, Dover handles anywhere from half again to twice as many C-141 StarLifter departures as any of the bases where they are primarily aircraft.

Given that volume of air cargo traffic, then one would expect to see the aerial port chock-full of cargo waiting movement. It is not full. 1st Lt. Tim Turner, OIC Air Freight, explained why—the port’s purpose is not to store cargo or become a warehousing activity, but rather to fill up and empty itself as quickly as possible every day. Cargo is not allowed to age. On a recent weekend night, for instance, the oldest westbound pallet at the Dover aerial port had been ready for movement four days, including a long holiday weekend with light traffic. The oldest eastbound pallet was only two days old, and it was being readied for movement that night. Thus, although thousands of tons of cargo are handled by the Dover aerial port each month, none of it stays very long at the base.

Fastest handling is given to MICAP shipments with the “999” red label on them, as for example a critical part for one Bitburg’s F-15s. They are processed within thirty minutes of arrival at Dover, and leave for Frankfurt or Ramstein in less than twenty-four hours, usually in less than twelve, either on a MAC C-141, contract 747, or MAC C-5 from the 436th.

Air Force Magazine staffers accompanied a load from Dover to Ramstein aboard C-5 90005, flown by a crew from the 9th Military Airlift Squadron, based at Dover. Aircraft commander Capt. Alan C. King and his crew personified the worldwide airlift operations occurring around the clock every day: maximum training accomplished while executing real-life missions.

While the flight crew was still resting and doing its preflight activities, loading of the aircraft began eight hours before takeoff time of thirty minutes after midnight. The unit’s duty loadmaster and loading crew took aboard the pallets of cargo and positioned them on the main deck. They also took aboard the blankets, pillows, and food trays for the seventy-three passengers who would ride on the C-5’s upper deck that night. (Only days before, the loading crews of the 436th had processed 400,000 pounds of emergency relief supplies for the Italian earthquake victims in a few years.)

Meanwhile, in the aerial port the duty crew in the pallet pit area were building up pallets for European destinations. They assembled groups of packages, boxes, and kits on modular pallets weighing about 3,000 pounds each. Every package is identified as to its pallet, and every pallet spotted at an identifiable location within the port for quick retrieval and on ward movement to an aircraft.

Forklifts and “automated cherry-pickers” have taken most of the muscle work out of moving cargo within the port, but aboard the aircraft, human muscle power is used to position the pallets precisely over the right point for weight and balance requirements.

Promptly at 12:30 a.m. on a clear, starry winter night, Captain King began the takeoff roll from Dover, and then the training began. Examples of the training night, during the eight flying hours to Ramstein: The navigator was being checked by an examiner for his full qualification; an instructor flight engineer was upgrading a flight engineer transitioning into the C-5; a flight engineer flight examiner from the 436th Wing was performing an unannounced check; and, among the loadmasters, an instructor was assisting a new man to qualify while another was responsible for the load. So the taxpayers got eight hours of airlift from this crew and eight hours of flying training simultaneously—a bargain both ways.

Meanwhile, the parts for the 36th TFW and other USAFE units were riding along at .77 Mach, where they reached Ramstein on time and were unloading into K-loaders for a short stay overnight at the aerial port.

Ramstein and Rhein-Main Air Bases are the main aerial ports in Germany, together handling almost 10,000 tons of cargo monthly. The action described at Dover is replicated in them: cargo in, cargo out, as fast as possible. They operate under control of MAC’s 322d Airlift Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. Robert L. Springer. He points out that routine cargo arrives at using units from the aerial ports within 2.5 to three days, on the average, after offloading from the aircraft arriving from CONUS. (That average includes weekends and holidays, when the large US Army cargo trucks can’t operate.)

General Springer says, “We do in peacetime the same things we’d do in wartime; that’s why these airlift missions are a bargain, because for the same price we get both training and the airlift.” He notes that Air Guard and Air Force Reserve specialists are an integral part of the airlift bargain. More than forty percent of the flight crews contain Reservists, and the aerial ports always have a portion of the complement from the Reserves performing active duty on actual mission-related tasks. Their participation throughout MAC, according to General Springer, “continuously builds a go-to-war capability” required of Air Force airlift resources.

“Push-Pull” Logistics

Shift mental gears now, leaving the inbound F-15 parts under the snow-covered roof of Ramstein’s aerial port. They will move out over land tomorrow in US Army cargo trucks or vehicles from the 36th TFW itself. Leap mentally about 100 kilometers northwest to Bitburg AB to find out how the 36th operates what its people call “push-pull” logistics. But first, details on the wing and its systems.

The 36th TFW has three flying squadrons: the 22d, 53d, and 525th, each authorized thirty pilots. Another twenty-one pilots are assigned to wing activities and perform other command and staff functions in addition to their flying duties. Primary mission of the 36th is air superiority in central Europe, and it maintains four F-15s on air defense alert at all times. They are ready to go, capable of scrambling in less than five minutes.

The pilot experience mix in the 36th breaks into three major categories, each supplying one-third of the pilots: those with immediate previous fighter experience; those coming into fighters from staff jobs, Air Training Command, or elsewhere; and those just completing Undergraduate Pilot Training and F-15 transition qualifications.

The wing flies about 18,000 hours annually, with each sortie taking about an hour. Eighty percent of the flying includes air combat training. In it, the pilots fly against each other or engage in dissimilar air combat training against USAF “Aggressor” F-5E, US Navy F-14, several nations’ F-4 and F-104s, the Mirage, Draken, and others. Eight aircraft are kept on the NATO range in Sardinia, with crews rotated there for training. In 1981, after frustration because of Operations & Maintenance (O&M) fund shortages, the 36th will send aircrews to participate in Exercise Red Flag at Nellis AFB, Nev.

Experience levels on the flight line and in the maintenance squadron reflect the Air Force overall: heavily weighted with younger airmen just graduated from Technical schools, and shortages in the middle and top NCO grades. The gaps, because of experience shortages, create enormous demands on the NCOs and the very junior and very senior airmen. The remarkable outcome—and a source of pride all around—is that the wing’s maintenance effectiveness rate stays at or near 100 percent at all times. That is, the sorties delivered meet or exceed the number of request.

But keeping that record up, and also coping with all the stresses of contemporary life of an American airman in Germany, demands something superhuman dedication and effort by all. (It is that dedication and 110-percent effort all the time that few people outside the Air Force ever see or hear about. But those qualities make the difference in compensating for years of cavalier treatment by the media and the government, and shortages of funds, parts, and skilled personnel.)

But what is “push-pull”? As the 36th TFW practices it, the phrase means making the logistics system work for the wing, not lying back and waiting for it. Col. Bart Crews, Deputy Commander for Resource Management, says, “For example, Warner Robins sees that a part is pushed into the system toward us; then we pull through the system to expedite its arrival here.” Let’s see how that works in practice for the 36th.

The F-15 maintenance concept is remove, replace, and repair. When an item malfunctions, it is removed and replaced with a spare and the defective part moves up the maintenance ladder. Much of the minor F-15 maintenance is performed on the aircraft right in the shelters, either by flying squadron personnel or technicians from the group called the Aircraft Maintenance Branch. They are a part of the 36th Aircraft Generation Squadron, but are associated and lined with a flying squadron.

The wing has supply points in the shelter areas, with bench stock and fast-moving spare items for replacement on the line. If a needed item is not there, those points have direct links to the supply computers in the wing’s Demand Processing section by which the local system can be searched and the part located and designated for pickup. One found, a part in base stocks is picked up and delivered to the flight line within thirty minutes. If not on base, the action goes into the hands of the Eagle Readiness Center, about which more will be told below.

Next level of maintenance is by the 36th Equipment Maintenance Squadron, whose members operate the shops, industrial complex, munitions storage, and the like. The highest level of local maintenance is performed by the 36th Component Repair Squadron. They identify and repair malfunctions in avionics, engines, and accessories.

If an item is beyond the wing’s capabilities to repair, it is returned to the depot and a replacement starts through the system to the wing.

This is a practical and functioning system. It would provide parts for installation in aircraft at all times if spares demands has been estimated precisely before the F-15 went into service, and if spares stockage accounts had been allotted enough fund to meet the expected demands. But either condition has been fully met, so F-15 units learn to manage shortages to keep providing sorties. As the F-15 experience Air Force-wide increases, the demand levels approach nearer reality. But the funding shortfalls of the past several years will still affect the system for two or three more years to come. That’s why the “pull” of “push-pull” logistics is so important at wing level.

Eagle Readiness Center

Managing shortages to produce sorties sounds somewhat like doing tricks with mirrors. But as the 36th TFW does the job, it consists of cross-talk between and among operations, maintenance, supply, and transportation people of the wing; liaisons with other F-15 units, air logistics centers, and suppliers; command support from USAFE and Air Force logistics Command; and initiative and imagination.

Consider liaison. Residing with the 36th TFW are Weapons System Liaison Officers with AFLC; one from Warner Robins ALC for the F-15 system less engine; and one from San Antonio ALC for the F100 engine. Also on the scene are five representatives from McDonnell Aircraft, the prime contractor. All these liaison representatives are able to communicate by phone or message within their organizations at all times.

At the same time, the wing has two NCOs stationed at the two main Air Logistics Centers (Warner Robins and San Antonio) to perform legwork and liaison on-scene. They are contacted daily to stay abreast of actions requiring priority attention on their part.

Let’s enter the Eagle Readiness Center now, picking up the case of the needed part that is not in base stocks. Recall that the Demand Processing section searches local resources for parts and, when located, takes action to propel them out to the flight line or shop. In ninety percent of the cases, the parts are probably in stock. It is the missing ten percent that engage the attention and initiate of the Eagle Readiness Center, or ERC.

The ERC is a group of expediters or gadflies, who pull MICAP items through the system so that aircraft “Not Mission Capable—Supply,” or Not Mission-Capable—Both” (this is, for both supply and maintenance reasons) can return to fully mission capable status in the fastest tie. It is established and operated by the 36th Supply Squadron. It looks like an operations center or command post, because it is a bit of both. Its existence and its people enable the wing to take effective action on the MICAP items, the ten percent of demand that create ninety percent of the problem.

Every afternoon at about 4:00 p.m. local time, the ERC staff calls the designated point of contact at Warner Robins ALC, a lady who is conversant with F-15 parts and knowledgeable I making the ALC system operate. They advise her of the priority items, and she in turn contacts the appropriate Item Managers, who initiate the action to push the parts into the system. Given the six-hour difference between Bitburg and Warner Robins, the Item Managers have most of the workday remaining to start the expediting.

The parts requested in the 4:00 p.m. call have been determined to be out of stock at Bitburg first, and also out of stock at the 32d Tactical Fighter Squadron at Camp New Amsterdam, the other F-15 unit in Europe. There is constant crosstalk between Camp New Amsterdam and Bitburg so that lateral transfer of needed parts can be done. The method of transfer is simplicity itself. Three times weekly, the two F-15 units each dispatch a truck to Noervenich, a base about equidistant from both, with the parts to be transferred. The transfer is done and the truck returns to home base the same day. If a part is too large or too heavy for the drivers to handle, they swap trucks and return them on the next shuttle run.

For expediting MICAP parts from the aerial parts at Ramstein and Rhein-Main, the wing dispatches a truck to each one every weekday. The normal, routine flow moves overland via US Army cargo trucks.

Much of the work of the ERC is tracking MICAP parts through the system and expediting their transit from origin to installation on the aircraft. It means following up with the Item Managers at Warner Robins or elsewhere to learn the estimated date that part will be shipped. If that date is too far away, the ERC people take initiative to urge an earlier shipping date out of the system. If they meet resistance, then USAFE headquarters is asked to five command assistance to lend more weight to the action.

The interesting aspect of the command assist is this: It usually is not required because the air logistics center won’t respond to an airman in the 36th Eagle Readiness Center, but rather because the ALDC has tried to respond and met resistance it can’t dislodge without the assist from USAFE. An example might be to request AFLC or the Air Staff to adjust intercommand priorities momentarily so that a vendor is told to supply direct to the 36th TFW a part originally ordered for another F-15 unit. Or the command assist could help convince AFLC to take a McDonnell Aircraft to meet this immediate need.

However the initiative is practiced by the Eagle Readiness Center, its members identify and can follow every high-priority item through the logistics system. If a part slows down or stops someplace in route, they know about it and take steps to get it moving again, fast. They take the actions to meet these two major challenges on MICAP items: Find the item and get it to the 36th as fast as possible. The third challenge is getting the repairable components into the system, back to the depot for repair and reissue.

Keep Repairables Flowing

Once again, Military Airlift Command makes it possible to manage in the face of shortages. Because O&M funding was at less than requested levels for so many years, there are not enough reparable (or exchangeable) components in worldwide USAF stocks to keep the system fully flowing. If there were, a constant stream of repaired components flowing from the depots would balance the flow back from units, so that the units would always have operable components to install in aircraft. But there are not enough, so the fewer must travel faster through the system. Military Airlift Command cuts the transit times both ways, from unit back to depot for repair and from depot to unit for installation.

Vivid impressions are created by flowing though the logistics system to and from an operational wing such as the 36th. The most memorable are these:

  • The age, rank and experience level of the uniformed men and women who make the system work are very junior. On aircraft after aircraft, one sees Senior Airmen for the crew chief’s rank, where a few years ago it would have been Staff Sergeant or Technical Sergeant.
  • These junior men and women are dedicated to overcoming shortages, and are fearless in pulling at the system to deliver. They are not deterred by rank or distance in making known their units’ needs.
  • The constant training—in flight and in shops—is building the foundation for a valid war-fighting capability while at the same time keeping peacetime readiness higher than it should be in light of the fund shortages of recent years.
  • Significant command attention is focused on managing the toughest problems, keeping them from getting out of hand.
  • The logistics “system” is no longer anonymous and amorphous. The persons responsible for items are identified by name and telephone number to the field units. Consequently, responsiveness is built in, because no one can hide.

If the new Administration and the Congress decide to respond to the Air Force’s needs for spares and other essentials that have been given short shrift in the past several years, the increased parts stockages won’t reach the units for another two or three years. But when they do, aircraft readiness rates will zoom upward to previously undreamed-of levels. The reason: For so many years the people of the Air Force have done wonders in the face of shortages; given adequate parts stocks, they will perform miracles.

How the System Copes With Parts Shortages

Examples of how the logistics system copes with critical parts shortages are provided by the cases of F-15 central gear boxes and jet fuel starters. Both are MICAP (mission-capable) components on the F-15. For a time in mid-1980, both were important elements in whether aircraft were NMCS (Not Mission Capable—Supply). That is, if they failed on an aircraft and were in stock at the unit, the maintenance people could remove and replace rapidly, returning the aircraft to mission-capable status promptly.

Two factors made the central gear box a short item: a shortage of parts for repair at San Antonio Air Logistics Center, and a temporary breakdown of the test stand there which compounded the shortage briefly. The solution: Repair the test stand and increase production by the manufacturer (AiResearch Mfg. Col.). The immediate actions filled outstanding MICAP requirements by November 30, and by April 1981 the requirements for meeting the needs of stock level and war reserve spare kits would be achieved. Meanwhile, analysis of central gear box failures is determining the cause(s), and, concurrently, stockage level revisions are planned.

Jet fuel starters were being removed prematurely (as compared with planned removal), creating abnormal demands that resulted in parts shortages for repair at the San Antonio Air Logistics Center. Analysis showed that the premature removals were caused by turbine wheel failures in the jet fuel starter. The failures resulted from attempting jet fuel starts with less than a full accumulator charge in the system.

Immediate action was taken to revise technical orders to prevent incorrect procedures causing more failures. But repair production of the jet fuel starter at the ALC was limited by availability of the turbine wheels, and they were paced by the production rate established with the manufacturer, AiResearch. San Antonio ALC increased its own repair capability, and contracted with AiResearch for additional repairs and temporarily increased production of the turbine wheels.

These cases illustrate the results achievable with command attention, quick analysis, and prompt remedies. The latter are not always possible, particularly in the cases of electric components and rare metals. Contractors may not want to bid for the work, or they may be limited by availability of elements supplied by subcontractors. The result is AFLC’s knowing what has to be done, but unable to do it because of limiting factors outside its ability to correct. When that happens, the system must “do more with less.”

The Case of the Binding Throttle Quadrant

“The Case of the Binding Throttle Quadrant” is an example of how field reporting of material deficiencies can make changes and prevent future problems. In this case, several pilots of the 36th TFW reported that the aircraft throttle quadrants were binding at about one inch aft of the military stop position. This binding caused a false indication of the MilStop location, and also a safety of flight hazard because excessive force was required to move the lever past the binding, which could cause inadvertent afterburner engagement.

The wing presented the case to Oklahoma City ALC at the end of September, including in its report the indications found when throttle quadrants were torn down and inspected: throttle lever cams worn, nicked, ground, and flat-spotted. The tracks on which the cams rode were nicked and bumpy.

Oklahoma City engineering experts investigated the case. Their findings upheld the report from the 36th TFW. They also found the cause. Essential adjusting screws on the quadrants were tightened all the way down and then safety-wired. When the screws were adjusted to a reasonable pressure, the throttle levers worked fine. A further finding: Field and depot technical data did not provide any procedure for proper adjustment of the screws, and thus there could be a wide range of tension in the springs they retained. Immediate action has been taken to revise the relevant orders to include a procedure to prevent the overtightening.