By Darrell Todd Maurina
By Darrell Todd Maurina
CNJ STAFF WRITER
Now that all 21 of their new F16CJ fighter jets have arrived, Cannon Air Force Base ground crews are undergoing extensive retraining and learning to take care of specialized planes that spent more years in Iraqi combat missions than some crew members have spent in the Air Force.
“Basically the previous aircraft we had, the block 30s, were ’86 and ’87 models,” said Capt. Brian Bonehill, officer in charge of the 522nd Aircraft Maintenance Unit. “It’s like comparing the 486 computers to the two gigahertz model.”
The new planes have many more “bells and whistles” than Cannon’s older planes and those changes aren’t just cosmetic, he said.
Until this month, the planes had been assigned to the 78th Fighter Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina and spent much of their time patrolling the northern and southern no-fly zones in Iraq. Established more than a decade ago after former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein used his air force to attack Kurdish rebels in the north and Shiites in the south, the no-fly zones required planes such as the F16CJ to destroy enemy radars that could lock on and destroy American planes.
James Allen, manager of plans and inspections at Shaw Air Force Base, said his base will lose about 60 positions in the transfer. While Cannon will gain some new maintenance people, Bonehill said it won’t be that many.
However, Cannon will be gaining planes with a significant combat history.
“It would not be hard for me to brag on their accomplishments. They’ve done outstandingly well what they do,” Allen said. “If (enemy forces) turn on their radar sites, we’ve got them.”
While pilots tend to get much of the attention in the Air Force, Bonehill said the retraining of his ground crews to work with the new planes is just as important and involves a much larger number of people — about 200 people on the ground compared to about 30 pilots.
“A lot of work on the ground goes into making sure the planes are healthy and that guy can go and come back,” Bonehill said. “For just about any airplane there are nine to 10 people working on the ground. All these people who go into that work on many different layers but all the public sees is a guy in a flight suit.”
Bonehill said the new planes have improved diagnostic systems, but as with any new system, his crews need to learn about new problems.
“With the upgraded systems, they tend to troubleshoot themselves a little better,” Bonehill said. “We have learned to go through some growing pains. Guys might have to get back into the books a little deeper to find problems.”
One thing won’t change, Bonehill said — a commitment to safety. Because they work with planes designed to destroy enemies, the ground crew has to be especially careful not to become inadvertent casualties.
“Any weapon in the Air Force is inherently dangerous, but our guys get extensive training with the inert munitions in a controlled environment before they even touch the live stuff,” Bonehill said.