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Columbus AFE keeps pilot production going

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb
  • 14th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
The U.S. Air Force is known for its air supremacy around the globe, and pilots are recognized for their ability to keep the skies safe from America’s enemies. But who keeps the pilots safe?

Airmen who work in aircrew flight equipment units throughout the Air Force ensure pilots have gear and equipment ready for them to perform their missions.

At Columbus Air Force Base, the AFE unit is one of the busiest in the Air Force, because they’re responsible for instructor pilots and pilots going through Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training.

“I can explain to you how busy it is to take care of 150 instructor pilots’ gear on top of 400 students’ gear to the best of my ability, but it’s 10 times busier than that,” said Staff Sgt. Dale Thibodeaux, 37th and 41st FTS NCO in charge. “I can’t see any other AFE units being busier than this. At my previous base we would have roughly five sets to work on a day, and here we work with roughly 25 sets a day or more.”

Each flying training squadron has an AFE unit attached to provide support to that specific squadron’s mission and airframe.

Every 14th Student Squadron student pilot will go through the 37th and 41st FTS to learn how to fly the T-6A Texan II, making their AFE unit responsible for the most gear sets and survival kits of any squadron on the base.

“Our job is to make sure when a pilot goes out the door everything is good to go,” said Senior Airman Hayden Harrison, 48th Flying Training Squadron AFE technician. “If anything goes wrong and they’re at that last line of defense, they can depend on quality equipment so they can stay alive.”

Much of their daily work involves customer service as well. Pilots bringing in gear they may need assistance with, fixing visors and replacing parts is commonplace during each week.

“It’s a constant building of helmets, masks, suits and every three weeks the new class adds to the workload,” Thibodeaux said. “If I prioritized one thing wrong it could throw off the entire schedule and back everything up.”

One of the more time consuming efforts the AFE Airmen work through is the building of custom equipment and fitting every pilot starting pilot training.

“We are responsible for fitting up and training them on how to use their gear properly,” said Staff Sgt. Steven Kern, 50th Flying Training Squadron AFE NCO in charge. “Each piece of equipment is custom fit for every individual and we repeat that process every three weeks for the incoming classes while we take care of the current students’ gear as well.”

A survival kit, maintained by AFE, must be available on every aircraft, and with over 200 aircraft on the base it’s important that each kit is checked and up to date.

“Each aircraft has a survival kit and it’s unique for the T-1’s kits because we have to make sure every aircraft that will be flying that day is checked and is ready for the pilots to use,” Harrison said. “We have to do that while keeping in mind the pilots are trying to take off so we have to prioritize it in a way that doesn’t hinder them.”

Helmets, masks, harnesses, G-suits, and survival kits are all the AFE units’ responsibility to keep the hundreds of pilots in each squadron safe every year.

“As long as guys are getting out of the door and we are putting out the highest quality equipment we can put out, you know you don’t need recognition for it,” Harrison said. “For the most part it’s a thankless job, but knowing what you’re doing is keeping people safe is the reward.”
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