When the Air Force and Boeing launched the KC-46 Pegasus program, the 412th Test Wing was tagged as one of the prime players in testing and validation of the aircraft.
Named the Air Force’s Responsible Test Organization, the 412th TW had to supply aircraft and a support crew for testing at Boeing Field International Airport in Seattle.
According to Lt. Col. Jennifer Barnard, the deputy commander of the 412th Maintenance Group, supporting the KC-46 with three dedicated F-16 Fighting Falcons creates a support deficit at Edwards Air Force Base where the remaining F-16 aircraft and support personnel do not have the capacity to meet the current workload.
Barnard was part of a team that started briefing Maj. Gen. Michael Brewer, the 412th TW commander, last spring about potential solutions in Washington state.
“There was a lot of doubt as to whether or not this would be successful,” she said.
One solution was to ask for support from the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve.
Barnard said they asked the Air Force for 7,300 military personnel appropriation (MPA) days. The Air Force agreed, basically authorizing Edwards AFB with 20 Guard or Reserve maintainers per day for fiscal year 2016.
According to Maj. Lena Freienmuth, the KC-46 test and F-16 support air reserve component coordinator, an MPA day is basically a Guard or Reserve workday. “We use it to put people on orders.”
“It’s basically how we get days in addition to our normal two weeks a year and one weekend a month,” explained her enlisted counterpart, Senior Master Sgt. Kevin Hunter.
Barnard said the major had to apply a little creative recruiting to find the right people to come here.
“Because we know there’s a shortage of F-16 maintainers — active duty, Reserve and Guard — Maj. Freienmuth came up with the idea of asking Guard and Reserve units — that within the last five years had a mission conversion — for support,” Barnard said.
The units used to have F-16s, but were converted to other missions, such as a remotely piloted aircraft or intelligence wing, she explained.
“Those maintainers’ training records are still good for five years, so she was able to find that resource,” Barnard said.
The Guard and Reserve volunteers blend in with active-duty and civilian personnel and rotate to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, based on KC-46 support requirements. There are three volunteers who stay at the joint base integrated locally in aerospace ground equipment, fuel systems and supply.
Barnard said the key to success has been “creative, effective recruiting with detailed and persistent management.” She also said that the level of detail in management, both at the program level and in the aircraft maintenance units, has been tremendous.
“It’s about relationships, community, and taking care of each other,” Barnard said.
Freienmuth agreed, citing an example of a senior master sergeant out on the line turning wrenches. “He’s doing a lot of the training for the young 3-level (trainees) we just got in,” she said. “He’s loving it. We take care of people up here from the program perspective, but he’s down in the AMU making sure those guys are taken care of.”
Barnard added that some of the Guard and Reserve Airmen who have been turning F-16 wrenches for a few years are easing the training burden on new F-16 crew chiefs who are retraining from the C-130 Hercules.
Caring for people is another key to success. The Guard and Reserve Airmen are treated the same as active duty. One example is a senior Airman who recently won a quarterly award from the active-duty side.
“No one can remember this level of TFI (total force integration) at Edwards prior to this,” Barnard said. “In eight months of flight testing (where F-16s were required), the KC-46 has not lost a test mission due to F-16 support. That’s incredible.”