After my years of experience as a crew chief under the 2A3X3 Air Force specialty code, I am going to give you the truth of what it’s like to be a Tactical Aircraft Maintenance Technician.
Job Description: Tactical Aircraft Maintenance
Tactical Aircraft Maintenance Technicians are the first ones in, and last ones out in every maintenance unit. They are responsible for the overall care of aircraft, documentation, inspections of aircraft structures, preventive maintenance, and scheduled inspections of their assigned aircraft.
They perform airframe, powerplant, and general maintenance as it comes up. Additionally, they are the go to technicians for towing operations for proper handling of aircraft on the ground.
Tactical Aircraft Maintenance Technicians are referred to as a “crew chief.” As things need addressed, the crew chief leads a crew of other AFSC’s to get the job done if it is outside of his or her specialty. They may get their name on the side of their assigned aircraft as an assistant dedicated crew chief and eventually as a dedicated crew chief.
As a new Airman, there are a few different career paths that you could take. The most common one is a flight line crew chief. That is what I described above. This is what people think of when they hear of crew chiefs.
Phase Technician: Phase Technicians do in depth special inspections of the airframe as they approach their scheduled down time. These inspections occur every 400 flying hours and they spend about a week on each aircraft as they come up.
Crash Recovery/Wheel and Tire: Crash Recovery duties require technicians to be available to respond to any in flight emergencies or crashes. Most of the time, they tow the aircraft back up to the flight line from the end of the runway. These technicians also replace and rig crucial safety of flight components like flight controls, air inlet ramps, landing gear, canopies, and other cable systems like nose wheel steering or start handles.
When they are not actively working aircraft or responding to emergencies, they build wheel and tire assemblies to go out to the flight line crew chiefs.
Maintenance Support Functions: Maintenance Support Technicians work in the support section. They maintain support equipment, perform tool inventories, inspect consolidated tool kits, deal with disposal of hazardous waste, and pack up cargo for TDY’s and Deployments.
Prerequisites: Tactical Aircraft Maintenance
To become a Tactical Aircraft Maintainer in the U.S. Air Force, you need to qualify with the following prerequisites.
- Obtain a high school diploma or a GED with 15 hours of college credit
- Be between 17-39 years old
- Score a 47 on the mechanical section of the ASVAB
- Have normal color vision
- Pass a secret security clearance
- Complete Basic Training or “boot camp” (Air Force Basic Training Survival Guide)
Technical Training School: Tactical Aircraft Maintenance
Technical Training school for this career field happens near Wichita Falls at Sheppard AFB, Texas. It is between 3-6 months depending on your assigned airframe.
During this time, you will still somewhat be treated like a trainee, but the fact is you are still just that. You are there to learn your job and embody what it means to be an Airman because you just got out of BMT.
During your training, you’ll learn the fundamentals of flight, electrical, hydraulic, landing gear, powerplant, and other related systems. You will also learn how to use tools and safety wire, a critical portion of aircraft maintenance.
The next phase of training will be on your assigned airframe. You will learn about the specific systems of your assigned aircraft, and perform maintenance tasks that will be crucial to your job.
Pay attention to these tasks! You will be expected to know how to do these when you get to your first duty station.
After that, you will be on to your first duty station where there is local training to spin you up to prepare you to be around running aircraft. This is known as “hot training.”
You will receive on the job training as tasks come up to be awarded your 5 level and eventually your 7 level.
Follow these do’s and don’ts of your Technical Training.
Do pay attention and learn all you can! You are getting paid to sit in a class and learn from a subject matter expert. Take advantage of this.
Do take notes and outline the material in a notebook the day before it is covered in a lecture. They forced us to do this when I was coming through and it honestly helped me a lot. You get exposed to the material 3x. (Reading it, writing it, and hearing it)
Do enjoy your time in Texas. Use the weekend to go out with friends or classmates to do something fun. I recommend going to Wichita Mountains for a day trip or going to Dallas for a sports event.
Don’t get your ass in trouble! There will be rules and you better follow them. If the Air Force is an honest career choice for you, you don’t want to start off your career with any paperwork or worse an Article 15.
Don’t get cocky because you did well in Tech School. The real flight line is a lot different. There is a difference between someone who is smart on paper and someone who can turn a wrench.
Don’t stretch yourself too thin. There will be many volunteer opportunities for you, but you should be focused on using your Technical Training to learn your job.
However, being a rope (Airman Leader) does instill some leadership qualities that will be good for your career, but it comes with a lot of extra time and heartache. Trust me.
Average Day: Tactical Aircraft Maintenance
Let’s go through the average day of a dayshift flight line crew chief. That is where you will most likely spend your first year actually working.
0700 – Roll call. Your bitter flight chief will call out training that everyone has gone overdue on and your 7 levels will give out assignments for the day. You get assigned to a “flyer” and are expecting 1000 steps.
0800 – You got your tool box pushed out to your jet. You begin to look it over, review the forms and hope you don’t find anything messed up before the fly day. You remove the covers and set it up for a launch. If you have time, you spend a good amount of time cleaning it.
0900 – You head to FOD walk. A crusty TSgt has emerged from his office for the first time in weeks to lead it. You walk the entire flightline looking for Foreign Objects (FOD). The crew chiefs walk under the jets like always while the other shops walk in front and behind of the aircraft.
1000 – STEPS! You’re notified that your pilot has stepped. You finish breaking the jet down, unpin the ejection seat. The pilot shows up, you salute him and hand him the forms. He’s pretty chill but he’s too cool for small talk.
1015 – Your pilot has finished up his walk around inspection and he is in the cockpit and ready to start up and you give him the all clear. Throughout the launch if anything comes up, you will have to tell the pilot to call it using his radios.
This is called a “redball” and happens pretty often for fighter aircraft. A skilled technician will show up to your spot and help out to try and clear up the issue if this happens.
1100 – Your jet takes off. You have to remain on standby because your jet could come down at any second. If you are lucky, you get a chance to get a bite to eat.
1200 – Your jet “squawks” in. If your aircraft is code 1, that means there is no discrepancies. That is what you want to hear.
1230 – You marshal your jet into the spot, safe it up, and tell the pilot he is clear to shut down. You do some forms documentation with the pilot, salute him, and send him off.
1245 – Now it’s go time. You must get your aircraft turned for the next go. You perform a thruflight inspection which includes, oil and hydraulic servicing, tire changes if needed, refuel, and any major safety of flight conditions that may need to be addressed.
1400 – You get steps again. You launch out your aircraft again. You are expecting your turnover to show up soon.
1430 – Your turnover shows up to relieve you. You give him any details about the jet he needs to know about and any hip pocket items that you found on your inspection that needs to be addressed. You push your tools into support.
1530 – After getting your tools turned in, you check out with your flight chief to see if there is anything for you. He reminds you that you have a computer based training that you need to knock out.
1600 – You get logged in on a computer to do your training so you don’t get in trouble. You get bitter because of the administrative work you have to knock out after spending your whole day on the flight line.
1630 – You head out for the day.
That is a pretty accurate depiction of a day shift crew chief on a good day. There are days when it goes sideways and aircraft break and need to be fixed. That is the fun part of the job that you will get more experience with as you have more time on the airframe.
Be prepared to work some long hours sometimes, have your boots turn black from hydraulic fluid, and burn yourself on liquid oxygen from time to time throughout your career as a flight line crew chief.
Culture: Tactical Aircraft Maintenance
The culture has changed over the years, but you still need to have thick skin. That is all I am going to say about that.
You may get picked on, you may get made fun of, but it is used as a learning tool so you will not keep making the same mistakes. Take everything with a grain of salt and don’t make the same mistake twice.
You would much rather have to carry around a chalk for a day because you forgot to secure a tool than have a Letter of Counseling going into your permanent file to follow you through your whole career. Remember that.
Along with the more non-traditional ways of teaching, correcting, and training, you’ll be expected to do your job correctly all the time with little to no recognition. However, you’ll be made an example out of whenever you make a mistake. That’s just how it is.
If you can handle not getting a pat on the back for every right thing you do and getting in trouble the few times you mess up, you’ll be just fine. That’s what I meant earlier by saying you need thick skin.
Culturally, the maintenance career field is full of “blue collar” workers who pride themselves in working harder than anyone else in the Air Force. That is true to an extent. The good maintainers out there will always find something to do when they are at work.
They come to work to do just that… work. If there isn’t any work to be done or there is down time while their jet is in the air, they’ll study technical data to increase their system knowledge of their assigned airframe.
The slackers will try to avoid work, especially labor intensive tasks. They’ll never look for any extra work to do and play on their phones during down time.
You’ll see your fair share of maintainers pounding energy drinks, dipping, smoking, vaping, and when they’re off work, drinking. I don’t recommend doing any of these things, but you should be aware of possible peer pressure to fit in.
In the maintenance career field, it is not uncommon for people to lose their motivation. Watch out for one another and read How to Stay Motivated in the United States Military for some guidance.
Professionalism: Tactical Aircraft Maintenance
If you read the section before this, you could guess that the maintenance career field is not the most professional out there. Follow these tips to make yourself stand out from your peers and get yourself promoted.
Dress and appearance: It will go a long way if you make sure your dress and appearance is always on point. Make sure you have clean boots, clean uniform, consider sewing on your OCP name tapes and rank, stay clean shaven, and have a nice haircut.
Work Ethic: Work while you’re at work! Do not spend an extended amount of time on your phone at work, and if there is any maintenance going on, be a part of it. ESPECIALLY, if you have never done the task before. Become an expert Airman by learning how to do your job better than anyone else. If there is down time, study technical data to increase your system knowledge.
Education: Pursuing an educational goal while you’re working on the flight line will set you apart from your peers when it comes to performance reports. Consider a degree path that relates to the job you’re doing.
Volunteering: Find a way to give back to the community. The cause should be something that you are passionate about. The top guys are going to be in the booster club board of directors because that’s what you do to get high visibility to be promoted.
My most recent way of volunteering is coaching a running improvement club. Find something similar for yourself.
Network: If you are busting your ass at work most people are going to like you because you’re a get it done kind of maintainer. Network with your peers and supervisors to get to know them at a little more personal level. You never know how these friendships could come in handy. Remember, keep it professional.
Career Progression: Tactical Aircraft Maintenance
As you move up through the ranks, more doors open for you to grow. Check out how your military career path could go as you progress.
- Amn-A1C: Flight line Crew Chief, Phase Technician, or Crash Recovery/Wheel and Tire
- SrA: Maintenance Support Technician.
- SSgt: Quality Assurance, Maintenance Training Instructor, Technical School Instructor, Other Developmental Special Duties
- TSgt: Flightline Expediter, Flight Chief, Developmental Special Duties
- MSgt: Production Superintendent, Aircraft Systems Superintendent, Flight Chief, Developmental Special Duties
- SMSgt: Lead Production Superintendent, Assistant Maintenance Unit Superintendent (Deuce),Developmental Special Duties
- CMSgt: Maintenance Unit Superintendent, Maintenance Squadron Superintendent, Maintenance Group Superintendent, Developmental Special Duties
Disclaimer to the list above, you will be subject to doing your core job until the rank of MSgt. However, if you get picked up for the jobs through the ranks as you go up, they will be 2-3 year breaks from your core job.
Special Qualifications to Earn: Tactical Aircraft Maintenance
As you get more experience you will earn qualifications. These will come through classes, special training, and certifications.
- Clearing Red X’s (inspecting someone else’s work)
- Engine Run’s (functional checks of engines)
- Intake and Exhaust Inspections
- Hot Pit Refueling (Refueling while engines are operating)
- Tow Supervisor
- Tow Member
- Crash Recovery Team
- Weight and Balance (Calculating center of gravity on aircraft)
Additionally, if you plan on working on airplanes in the civilian world you should try to earn your Airframe and Powerplant License through the FAA.
This will set you up for success in a civilian career.
Deployments/TDYs: Tactical Aircraft Maintenance
If you are stationed at a base that deploys on a regular cycle, find out how often you can expect a deployment. For my first base, our cycle was every two years. 6 months is a long time to be gone, but it is where you will get a lot of valuable experience and sharpen your skills as a maintainer.
If you are single, volunteer to go on every deployment that you can. Sometimes they can come up at a moment’s notice. Your pay is tax free, you could earn danger zone pay, and you can spend the time deployed to improve yourself by hitting the gym hard, hitting college hard, and you’ll make lifelong friends in the process.
Most Aircraft Maintenance Units will go on multiple TDYs every year. This stands for temporary duty. These typically include trips to other Air Force Bases throughout the world, and they are a great opportunity to travel.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get to stay at an off base hotel where you can make per diem and make a good amount of money. However, you have to budget or you won’t save much.
Common TDY locations in the states include Las Vegas, Alaska, and Florida. Overseas bases TDY to other locations as well. Ask your peers about where you could expect to go.
Check out How to Grow Your Savings Account While in the Military for more information on how going on TDYs and deployments can benefit you financially.
Civilian Careers Related to Tactical Aircraft Maintenance
The cool thing about this career field is that it is specialized to the point that you get to maintain military fighter aircraft, but you are still maintaining aircraft. Every major city in the world has an airport, and they need people to work on airplanes.
The job market is hot, and you can earn a lot more money than what the military is willing to pay you by working on airplanes in the civilian sector.
Commercial airline A&P mechanics earn more than $80,000 a year!
You can earn your A&P certification while you are active duty through your creditable experience of 30 months on the job. You can use the GI bill when you get out to go to school for it.
Set yourself up for success and get that appropriate rating!
Also, do not feel limited to aircraft maintenance when you decide to pursue a civilian career. You are a marketable veteran that can use your leadership, time management, attention to detail, production processes skills to land a good job.
The Enlisted Experience
Tactical Aircraft Maintenance is a rewarding career in the Air Force. A successful person in this career field should be intrinsically motivated, have integrity, have high standards, and a good work ethic.
U.S. Air Force aircraft would be nothing but paperweights without Tactical Aircraft Maintenance personnel.
If you decide to pursue the career of a Tactical Aircraft Maintenance Technician, the responsibility of delivering a safe, reliable aircraft for a pilot to fly will lay right in the palm of your hands. The pilot will be trusting you with his life, and the nation will trust you to deliver air superiority when we need it most.
If you have read through this article and think you have what it takes to be a Tactical Aircraft Maintainer, this career might be a good choice for you. Check out What You Should Know Before Deciding to Join the Military before you head out to the recruiter’s office.
– The NCO You Never Had