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NEWS | Dec. 12, 2012

AFE: A pilot's lifeline

By Staff Sgt. Katie Gar Ward 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

"A pilot ejected over Alaska," said the voice on the phone. "The parachute on the jet was one that you packed."

For a few seconds, panic rushed over him. His signature was on that parachute's checklist - someone's life was in his hands. A feeling of dread began to swell in his stomach.

His mind began racing with questions: did he perform the right checks? Did he use the correct cord? Did he follow the technical orders correctly? Did he do everything right?

As this mental play-by-play continued for what seemed like an eternity, the voice on the other line interjected.

"Everything's fine," said the voice. "The pilot landed safely."

"Thank you," said Tech Sgt. Ralph Williams, 1st Operations Support Squadron aircrew flight equipment craftsman, letting out a huge sigh of relief. "Thank you so much."

For Williams, the outcome of that pilot's ejection meant he had just experienced the first "save" of his career, having occurred only a few years after he joined the Air Force.

Having been a parachute technician for 12 years, Williams knows great responsibility rests in his ability to perform his job correctly. For all aircrew flight equipment technicians, whether handling parachutes, survival kits or helmets, any piece of equipment they touch has the potential to save a pilot's life.

For Senior Airman Roland Sperbeck, 1st Operations Support Squadron survival aircrew flight equipment technician, the idea of having a "save" comes with mixed feelings.

"We want the 'save,' but at the same time we don't," he said. "We don't want that chance that someone might die, but having a 'save' means we're doing something right."

According to Williams, the process of ensuring that AFE technicians do their job correctly relies heavily on inspections, continuity checks and technical orders. Paying extremely close attention to detail and knowing the technical aspects of the job must be a priority, he said.

"Getting the pilot down safely is our number one job," he said. "It might take you 20 extra minutes to look over something again, but that's what you do. You start to think of the bigger picture."

Although the safety of the pilots is the primary focus for aircrew flight equipment technicians, they are not the only people to consider while performing inspections, said Tech. Sgt. William Richardson, noncommissioned officer in charge of the 1st Operations Support Squadron T-38 AFE section.

"We provide the pilots with gear so if they go down in the event of a mishap, they're going to get down safely so they can get home to their families," said Richardson. "Knowing that is the best part of the job."

For Williams, one of the most rewarding aspects of his job is being able to train others through sharing knowledge and experiences.

"I love teaching people that they have equipment in their hands that can potentially save someone's life," said Williams. "It's a good feeling to know I can really put my word to what I'm training - when I tell them I've been using this technical order, following every step and that I have had two 'saves.'"

Regardless of any 'saves' or awards that may come with the job, Williams said there is an overall pride that comes from being an aircrew flight equipment technician. The unique nature of packing parachutes is what he loves the most.

"When I tell people outside of the military that I pack parachutes for a fighter jet ejection seat, their eyes light up and they say 'wow, that's really important - you are really saving someone's life,'" he said. "It doesn't get old to me - I love packing parachutes. You really can't do it anywhere else."

Aircrew flight equipment technicians play a critical role in the scope of today's mission. Whether handling parachutes or survival kits, it is clear that the lives of our pilots aren't left in the hands of just anyone, but in those of elite Airmen who not only take extreme pride in their jobs, but understand how attention to detail is key to the success of the Air Force. Just one extra stitch on a piece of flight equipment can mean the difference between whether or not a pilot lands safely - a 'save' that all Airmen can take pride in.