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NEWS | Oct. 17, 2014

Freedom never sleeps: Midshift munitions

By Senior Airman Austin Harvill 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

While most Joint Base Langley-Eustis community members sleep soundly at home, a select group of U.S. Air Force Airmen still toil away, putting jets in the sky, protecting the base around the clock, preparing food for the troops or generally ensuring the JBLE mission sees the light of tomorrow.

This is mid-shift. Typically starting at 11 p.m. or midnight and ending at 7 or 8 a.m., most Airmen "working mids" will tell you those hours are really a suggestion - mission comes first, and these Airmen need to meet that mission before they meet the morning sun.

Although it may seem like mid-shift is a coffee-induced nightmare, the Airmen clocking in with the new day understand why they aren't asleep - Freedom never sleeps, so they don their uniforms to stay up too.

Thrust vectoring, stealth capabilities and supercruise define the F-22 Raptor as a fourth generation aircraft. Time and time again, Air Force leaders will bring up these qualities and the superior air power at Langley Air Force Base.

But without the work of three-Airman teams the night before a flight, all of the Raptor's capabilities are virtually useless.

Munitions, missiles and meticulous preparation define the mid-shift for munitions Airmen. Not to be confused with those who work in "Ammo Country," munitions Airmen are responsible for properly loading, unloading and ensuring all manners of munitions function as intended with the aircraft.

Firing a weapons system on a Raptor isn't nearly as simple as firing the venerable M-16 rifle. Loading, firing and unloading a wing of 10 to 15 Raptors takes 24 hours to complete. Separated into roughly eight-hour shifts, mid-shift workers are charged with the first aspect of a flawless weapon launch - they load the jets.

"Loading a Raptor isn't as simple as putting a [missile] in the bay," said Staff Sgt. Corey Bower, 94th Air Maintenance Unit Team 25 weapons load team leader. "This is a complex aircraft, weapons platform and munitions package - prep work, proper loading and a post-load inspection are absolutely necessary to ensure the jet can fire in the morning."

To accomplish this task, munitions teams have three members. The team lead, or "one-man," is responsible for the entire process. This seasoned munitions expert knows the inside and out of a weapons platform and supervises, critiques and improves the work of the team. The team lead also checks over the entire jet to see if it is prepared for a load.

The two-man preps the jet for a load. A two-man gets into the "nuts and bolts" of the jet by checking the load area, preparing the launchers or bays and securing the munition once it is placed.

While two preps the jet, the three man preps the munitions. This member checks the "brain" of a munition, matches munitions IDs to aircraft tail numbers and ensures the whole package isn't damaged. Once all three members prepare the load, it is time to move the munitions.

While three Airmen are crucial to performing the mission, that isn't the whole story, said Senior Airman Robert Todd, 94th AMU Team 25 two-man.

"I don't think a lot of people know the physical demands of this job," Todd explained. "The main armament we use on the F-22 weighs around 150 pounds. If we load two per jet, and we prep a lot of jets a night, that starts to take its toll. The three-man carry is absolutely necessary just to move the munitions."

Once a jet is locked and loaded, the team performs a post-load inspection. After checking the work, they load the next Raptor. Then, they load the next Raptor, and so on.

While it may seem monotonous to some, Airman Zach Harlan, 94th AMU Team 25 three-man, said the camaraderie makes the time go by.

"Working with your hands out on the flight line really brings a team together," said Harlan. "It is nice to start the night with empty jets and see them fully loaded for the morning."

After all the hours, all of the prep and the constant quasi-bicep curls, one might expect them to bask in the fruit of their labor. Bower said, however, the last thing he wants to see is a loaded Raptor.

"Once that jet comes back, the first thing I want to see are empty weapon bays," said Bower. "If they're empty, I know that aircraft dropped munitions, and I know my team's efforts were directly responsible for a successful mission."