Puzzle Master – Life of a 911th Maintainer

  • Published
  • By Justyne Strohmeyer
  • 911th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

If you asked me to label a maintainer in one word, I could try, but just one word would be insufficient. However, I could tell you a story to define them as a whole. The maintainer is diligent, detailed, and complex. After more than a year of integrating myself into their meetings, briefings and interviewing personnel, I am still learning new things at every turn.

“Meeting our flying hour program from a maintenance perspective is like putting a 2000 piece puzzle together, where only half the pieces have images on them and there are inevitably a few missing pieces,” said Lt. Col Richard Cox, 911th Maintenance Group Commander. The beginning of this intricately detailed process begins with maintenance scheduling. In reference to our puzzle it’s the edges, that’s where you begin.

So, what do you do when you have a puzzle, with no references, missing sections, and a workforce that is arguably the hardest working in an Air Force wing? You set to work, one piece at a time.

Having a seat at the table -- figuratively speaking – and sitting in on daily production meetings, I have watched the puzzle as it moves; as pieces get set, as pieces are thrown out, even as pieces are created.

Their puzzle creation starts here…

From the beginning of the aircraft conversion from C-130 Hercules to C-17 Globemaster IIIs until now, the wing has been authorized and assigned multiple C-17 aircraft, as well as funded and manned for these aircraft. The group has only ever maintained the majority of the aircraft at the same time while a minority of the aircraft sat at depot for 2 ½ years. This may seem like less work but in reality, it’s the opposite. The same amount of flying with fewer airplanes means more airplanes to maintain as they are frequently used. The ramifications of an adjusted flying schedule, not built for fewer aircraft, has been difficult and strenuous not only on the 911th MXG but on the 911th Airlift Wing as a whole.

When this puzzle begins, the 911th MXG starts to sort and organize. Separating all the pieces for the outside edge– which could be your leadership teams, such as commanders, chiefs and frontline supervisors. It could also be as simple as the schedule of flying and maintenance for the upcoming year. Now all the pieces are important, but these ones, they give the puzzle its outline – its structure. It’s shape to work within.

The puzzle’s innermost pieces are a mixture of different shops, different squadrons, different processes of scheduled maintenance vs unscheduled maintenance and so much more. This is the meat of it all. The people that turn the wrenches, create the flying and maintenance trackers; the processes put in place to perform conditions based maintenance, and more. The foundation of the unit is built within the center, the core. Without them, the unit cannot function as a whole. Every piece is valued the same, no matter the shape.

Remember, there are missing pieces, too! So, what happens then? Well, the people do what they do best. The innermost pieces link-up with their leadership to use their knowledge, innovation, and persistent problem-solving skills to communicate and create ways to get the puzzle done. This may mean “creating” a tool or part using the 3-D printing machine; adjusting a checklist to master the job efficiently; or fabricating a new process to communicate issues more effectively.

The great thing about making puzzles is when you start to see the final product come into view; you then gain more awareness of the BIG picture. You grow with those around you, who are helping you create the puzzle and you prepare for more to come.

The perfect storm can happen any moment, but the maintainers of the 911th MXG will be ready for it. With tools, ingenuity, and perseverance, they will get the job done.