DULUTH, Minn. --
In May of 2018, a severe windstorm blew through the 407th Air Expeditionary Group, Ahmad al-Jaber Air Base, Kuwait while personnel from the 179th Air Expeditionary Squadron were evacuated to their quarters. 91-mile per hour straight-line winds collapsed sunshades onto seven F-16 fighter aircraft assigned to the 148th Fighter Wing, Minnesota Air National Guard. The 148th had deployed 333 personnel plus twelve F-16s in support of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE. Five of those F-16s sustained catastrophic damage.
The 148th flies the Block 50CM Fighting Falcon, the newest and most capable F-16 in the U.S. Air Force fleet. The specialized aircraft provides Suppression and Destruction of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD/DEAD).
Sunshades are industrial-strength steel frames engineered covered with rip-resistant fabric for wind and snow loads. They are commonly used on military bases with hot climates to protect aircraft or equipment and decrease temperatures for personnel working on equipment.
148th Accessories Element Supervisor, Senior Master Sgt. Glen Flanagan, was the night shift non-commissioned officer in charge when the wind storm hit. "The storm had been building for much of the night. I didn’t realize how bad it was until a heavy four-foot by four-foot fiberglass bin flew up, hit our building’s garage door and knocked it off its track," said Flanagan. "The garage door opened and caused the building to fill with blowing sand and dust," he added.
148th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Commander, Maj. Will Carr and Chief Master. Sgt. Peter Bergherr were outside driving when the sunshade fabric began ripping off the structures. "The fabric ripping off the structures sounded like thunder," said Carr. Shortly after, a fuel tank blew past their truck and the sunshades started to collapse.
All personnel who were working during this shift congregated in their aircraft maintenance facility to wait for the winds to subside. Once the weather calmed, the Production Supervisors assessed the outdoor work areas and determined aircraft munitions to be unsafe. A majority of 148th personnel were evacuated to their quarters. Deployed Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) personnel were quickly called in and the work area was declared safe in minimum time.
The winds caused the worst battle damage an Air Force or Air National Guard unit had received since 1991 according to the mobile depot field team who assisted after the storm. "It looked like a bomb went off," said Chief Master Sgt. Ryan Gigliotti, Equipment Maintenance Flight Chief who served as the daytime Production Supervisor on the deployment. In addition to seeing the sunshades on top of the jets, with steel pipes puncturing several jets in varying locations, "there were centerline tanks and equipment strewn across the ramp from the winds,"
A small group of specialized maintenance personnel along with Civil Engineers from the 407th Air Expeditionary Group spent much of the morning after the storm assessing damage and formulating a plan to remove the wreckage.
A crash recovery team, consisting of aircraft maintenance personnel and civil engineers, was then formed to untangle and remove the collapsed sunshades from the aircraft. Civil engineers used large cranes to help support the weight of the structures while technicians sawed the steel frame as weapons load crews simultaneously de-armed aircraft. The untangling of structures from the F-16s took a week.
While damaged jets and sunshades were being untangled, additional aircraft maintenance personnel worked on removing substantial amounts of sand and debris from F-16s that were not severely damaged to get ready for flying combat missions in support of U.S. Central Command taskings.
"We quickly prioritized our efforts to get our fully mission capable jets ready, fix the least damaged jets first, then disassemble and ship the non-repairable jets," said Gigliotti.
"The coordination and logistics were intense," recalled Col. Nate Aysta, 148th Operations Group commander who served as the 179th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander during the deployment. "We received six replacement F-16s from three different major commands,"; the 148th Fighter Wing (Air National Guard), Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina (Air Combat Command), and Spangdahlem Air Base, German (United States Air Forces – Europe).
"I couldn’t believe the totality of what happened" said Master Sgt. Michael Griffith, 148th Fighter Wing Electric Shop Supervisor who served as a Crew Chief on the deployment. Griffith led a team of aircraft maintenance personnel who performed the daunting tasks of removing two tails from non-repairable F-16s to damaged, yet repairable aircraft.
The work load was massive, requiring teamwork and innovation. "There were no commercial equivalent tools available for some of the work that needed to be done," said Aircraft Metals Technology Craftsman, Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Riordan who designed and fabricated a dog-leg wrench for the tail work. When asked if designing the wrench was difficult, Riordan said "we had all the measurements we needed and we knew what the tool needed to do."
"It’s not common for a Wing to perform Depot-Level (D-level) Maintenance, especially in the combat zone," said Chief of F-16 Flight Test and pilot for the F-16 System Program Office at Hill Air Force Base, Lt. Col. R. Matt Russell. Russell was the test pilot who flew the two damaged aircraft before they were deemed fully mission capable while in the deployed location.
D-Level Maintenance is performed on aircraft requiring major overhaul or a complete rebuild of major parts, assemblies, subassemblies, and end items, including the manufacture of parts, modification, testing, and reclamation as required.
Maintenance personnel implemented a plan utilizing 3,473 man hours for major repairs including a wing change and two tail swaps. Once that work was complete, Russell deployed to the 407th to perform an extensive function check flight to include high angle attack movements to ensure the jets were structurally sound and safe for combat. "I put the jet in several maneuvers that the flight controls would not be able to control if the jet is rigged incorrectly," said Russell. He added that "if the tail, leading edge flaps or wings are bent, it will impact flight."
Russell, who also teaches High Angle Attack at the United States Air Force Test Pilot School (USAF TPS) at Edwards Air Force Base, California said "it’s pretty remarkable to get two jets flying that could have been shipped home in a box." He added that "as a result, they were able to add sorties to their air tasking order in combat."
"The work done by the 148th maintenance team, 407th AEG wingmen and multiple agencies stateside was amazing," said Carr. "It’s difficult to capture the monumental efforts maintenance personnel took to repair aircraft while still producing combat capable aircraft in a deployed location," Carr added.
The hard-work, subject matter expertise and collaboration of aircraft maintenance personnel resulted in two F16s returning to fully mission capable status and accomplishing 18 additional sorties. "The pride felt by many Airmen when the two severely battle damaged jets returned to combat operations was inspiring," said Carr.
During the 2018 deployment, the 179th flew 682 combat sorties for 3,899 hours resulting in 61 intercepts of Russian, Iranian and Syrian aircraft. The 179th was handpicked to perform maritime escort for a Marine Corp Carrier Group through the highly contested Straits of Hormuz.
Ultimately, three F-16s were considered destroyed and palletized for shipment to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. AMARG is a one-of-a-kind specialized facility operated by Air Force Material Command. AMARG provides critical aerospace maintenance and regeneration capabilities, also known a depot-level maintenance, for warfighters, such as the battled damaged F-16s assigned to the 148th Fighter Wing.
While at AMARG, the three F-16s received extensive sheet metal repairs and replacement, engineering and design as identified by both 148th personnel and the mobile depot field team. This work was completed by sheet metal technicians, aircraft electricians, avionics technicians and an airframe, powerplant general (APG) according to David Sepulveda, the Special Projects Flight Chief at AMARG.
Today the third and final F16, aircraft 339, returned from AMARG. Flown by Russell, 339 was greeted by a couple dozen maintenance personnel, most who were deployed to the 407th AEG in 2018. The other F-16s were returned to the 148th in October 2019 and January 2020. "It feels good to have closure with 339 on the ramp," said Col. Robert Troy, 148th Maintenance Group Commander. "I think it’s even more meaningful for the men and women who put the work into taking the aircraft apart, putting it into a crate to ship home. Many, I doubt, expected to see it fly again. After 960-days, I feel like our fleet is whole again," added Troy.
Upon returning to the 148th, the AMARG repaired F-16s receive a thorough acceptance inspection to ensure the jet and its subsystems operate safely. While each F-16 returned from AMARG is different, it’s expected this F-16 will receive hundreds of hours of maintenance before being declared fully mission capable.