Holloman Air Force Base
Members of the 49th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Crash Recovery and Program Maintenance Package section look over an MQ-9 Reaper in Oct. 2010, after it crashed by the flight line. The 49th AMXS Crash Recovery and PMP team is the only organization of its kind on the base and is responsible for safely recovering any locally assigned or transient aircraft that crash. (Courtesy Photo)
As three airmen are actively engaged in a training program, a voice comes over their land mobile radio notifying the air waves of an aircraft’s in-flight emergency.
“Stand by crash, stand by crash,” said the voice on the LMR. “We have an IFE. Possible nose landing gear failure on runway one-six.”
The three airmen drop what they are doing and race toward their vehicles to head to the site, two of the airmen in a truck and one following behind in a tow vehicle. Once they get to the intersection of the runway and the taxiway they radio the tower to get permission to cross the runway. When cleared, they hurry to where the intact aircraft has landed — with less than five minutes having gone by from the time they were notified.
When they arrive on scene, the fire chief clears them to do their portion of the job. The airman in the tow vehicle hooks up the nose of the aircraft to begin its tow job back to the aircraft’s maintenance hangar. After they drop the undamaged aircraft off at its destination, they update the tower on their status.
In this scenario the aircraft mentioned didn’t crash, but if it had, the airmen were ready for it because they are part of the 49th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Crash Recovery and Program Maintenance Package section.
“We safely recover any locally assigned or transient aircraft that crash,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jason Passmore, 49th AMXS Crash Recovery and PMP section chief. “Our biggest priority is to keep the runway clear. Also, we must prevent any secondary damage to an aircraft that we have to remove from the runway. We support anything and everything that is flying in the wing.”
Because the 49th AMXS Crash Recovery and PMP team is the only one of its kind on the base, their work hours, no matter how irregular, must follow the wing’s flying schedule.
“We are running as long as something is flying, so if we need to be on 24/7 we can be,” said Passmore. “It can be difficult sometimes because our hours vary so greatly, but we love it.”
One member of the 49th AMXS Crash Recovery and PMP team, U.S. Air Force Senior Airman David Nash, loves his job because of the irregularities, he said.
“There hasn’t been a standard day that I remember,” Nash said. “It’s a very unique shop. On the flight line I was used to day-in-day-out work, but here every day is completely different. There could be a day when there are no IFEs then the next day there could be four or more.”
“We can be in a training environment or a maintenance environment and all of a sudden, an IFE kicks off,” Nash said. “It really gets your adrenaline rushing, so for us it takes a different mental state to be able to do it. You have to keep your composure and understand what you need to do during the emergency.”
Even though cleaning up an aircraft crash may be tedious, it must be done, Nash said.
“We could be in full tyvek with respirators and it could be 120 degrees outside, but it doesn’t matter,” he said. “We pick up every piece that we can find. That way it won’t contaminate the ground and it will help the safety investigation board. Maybe a rivet we find may be the cause of the accident. We don’t leave until the crash site is cleaned up, however long that may take.”
The entire section, which is comprised of 20 members, stays busy even when they are not responding to an IFE, said Passmore.
“Even though on any given month we could respond to 20 or more IFEs, we also respond to ground emergencies and when we aren’t responding, we are fulfilling our program maintenance package duties for the F-22,” he said. “We don’t really have down time because our day is also filled with training. We routinely have a [Crash Damaged Disabled Aircraft Recovery class] where we go over normal and emergency airfield operations and how to navigate the airfield.”
“We also go through all of our trailers and every piece of our specialized equipment, including our crane, which we have used to help the RPA units out, like when they perform landing gear operational checkouts,” Passmore said. “There’s also the composite response training that we do because we want to make sure our people know how to properly wear their safety equipment around hazards.”
Because the typical response crew to an IFE is three members, everyone in the section must know how to do any of the crash recovery duties.
“All 20 members of the crash recovery team can do any of the jobs,” said Passmore. “Our support personnel are not just assigned to support, they cover everything. We could close down our support and have them all out there in a tyvek suit responding to an aircraft crash.”
Since crash recovery is not an Air Force Specialty Code, only a select group of Airmen can be chosen for the job.
“We are all F-22 crew chiefs, or aircraft maintenance specialists, by trade,” Passmore said. “But there are different jobs we can do within our career field. We were selected because of our previous experience or our desire to come learn this duty. It’s not something you come out of tech school knowing how to do. This is in addition to our primary jobs.”
Even though the crash recovery team has many duties, the additional tasks often go overlooked, said Passmore.
“We support everything that flies, everything that lands, but we don’t just do that,” he said. “People may think, ‘Oh they don’t have anything going on when a jet is not flying,’ but with all of the training, PMPs and crane operations, there are so many things that we actually do that I don’t think people realize it. And as an Airman 1st Class, Senior Airman and Staff Sergeant, there is an enormous amount of responsibility on them even in the lowest rank.”
“We handle a lot of things that most people don’t get to see,” Nash said. “We take everything in stride and are very proud that no matter what our rank may be, we play a very important role in the base’s mission.”