Historic exercise Steel Challenge: Maintenance Group

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt Marjorie A Bowlden
  • 911th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Over the October unit training assembly, Airmen of the 911th Airlift Wing undertook a massive effort to launch six aircraft in the wing’s last C-130 Hercules generation exercise before the possible C-17 mission change next fiscal year.


The exercise, called Exercise Steel Challenge 16-01, touched the duties of most every Airman on base. But without the Airmen of the 911th Maintenance Group, the mission would not have been possible in the first place.


“The guys are what makes the mission happen,” said Master Sgt. Mark Hample, flightline production expediter with the 911th MXG. “If it wasn’t for them, these planes would never get off the ground.”


The exercise was a simulation of a short-notice deployment, launching every fully mission-capable aircraft in order for them to reach the simulated location within a 72-hour window.


These time constraints were sharply felt, especially considering that traditional reservists were available for a certain timeframe, said Hample. The limited time available led to the exercise being planned to the minute, with milestones and standards that had to be met at specific times for mission success.


“The 72-hour time frame was cut down significantly because we are a one-shift operation here,” said Senior Master Sgt. Benjamin Waxenfelter, production superintendent with the 911th MXG. “Out of those 72 hours, with minimal manning, we really only had 16 hours.”


Between planning and takeoff, an infinite number of tasks and events could go awry. From red-balls (last-minute, critical fixes), to missing tools, to miscommunication, the smallest mistake could mean mission failure.


“Everything has to go as planned,” said Staff Sgt. Darren Reed, aerospace maintainer with the 911th MXG. “If we have any upsets that actually break the plane, we’re under a time crunch to get it fixed. Everything is set to a pretty high standard.”


Despite the high stakes, 911th AW Commander Col. Douglas Strawbridge had nothing but faith in the maintenance Airmen to get the job done. The planes, though old, have consistently been able to fly reliably and safely due to the strong efforts of 911th MXG Airmen.


“Every time I fly on one of our aircraft and ask if there are any write-ups, they tell me ‘not a one,’” said Strawbridge. “It’s amazing what they are able to do with those planes.”


The historic exercise went without a hitch, and ended with all six aircraft flying in formation over the city of Pittsburgh. The planes landed without being any worse for wear.


This article is part two in a two-part series on Exercise Steel Challenge 16-01.