RAWS helps Columbus AFB planes roar through the skies
By Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb, 14th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
/ Published July 20, 2018
COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Flying without a radio is extremely difficult and extremely dangerous just as flying headfirst into a storm can be a risky endeavor, but the 14th Operations Support Squadron Radar, Airfield and Weather Systems (RAWS) Flight knows exactly what it takes to keep pilots aware and communicating effectively.
Taking care of radios from basic components to radio towers and weather systems from a computer or under the radar dish, RAWS Airmen handle mission essential systems every day on Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi.
“Every electronic out there keeps our aircraft flying and the pilots communicating safely,” said Staff Sgt. Eli Mell, 14th Operations Support Squadron RAWS electronic technician.
He mentioned each piece of equipment is unique as well. Some have preventative maintenance every few weeks others every few months. Some equipment’s parts need to be fixed or replaced, and some things are fixed remotely.
The RAWS flight begins working before sunrise and end after sunset to maintain and repair their systems.
“We usually grab an available Airman and go to work on whatever needs to be worked on, whether it be radar or weather systems,” said Nicholas Ward, RAWS electronic technician. “We team up with whoever is available and that helps the on-the-job training all the Airmen.”
The civilians in the flight used to be responsible for weather systems only, but the airfield systems and weather systems maintenance fields were merged in 2017, therefore the units combined and now teach each other through mostly on-the-job training techniques.
“It’s much easier for us with the crew we got because we are all prior airfield systems when we were active duty,” Ward said. “We have the basics even though we’ve been out of the career for 10 plus years. There’s some growing pains because we are used to being separate shops, but it’s running smoothly.”
The civilians said their experience as prior service Airmen allows them to keep the rank structure firm from a mentorship and leadership view. They even take on NCO type roles in the office and on job sites.
“To help streamline and control the maintenance with the civilians’ experience, we receive all the calls on a day-to-day basis and prioritize jobs,” Ward said. “Then we work with the sergeants who are shift leaders to delegate teams to work on certain jobs.”
The unit will sometimes split up teams when they receive a job; then swap out equipment, bring it back, and stay on that job until it’s finished. Ward said this method brings a team mentality and keeps a single set of eyes on a job so there’s no confusion on what’s been done since the beginning. Pieces of radios scatter the workshop tables as Airmen take apart, solder and replace parts.
“Day to day, radios are probably the most tasked,” Ward said. “The radios are older than the aircraft, we have some that have been here since World War II. The air traffic control tower or radar approach control tower will let us know when somethings not working, we’ll go through our procedures take the radio, troubleshoot and fix it.”
The main focus since the merging of the two careers is training everyone fully on the new radio or weather systems, Mell said. The RAWS technicians’ expertise is essential in preventing equipment failures but sometimes issues cannot be prevented and their ability to react can be critical.
“There’s a lot of times on night shift we will perform maintenance after flying hours to troubleshoot and fix,” Ward said. “We’ve had issues with equipment that killed all the radios in the middle of flying or issues with the main radar going down, internal issues that killed the radar, all caused mission stoppage and we have to jump in and fix it as fast as we can.”
This critical part of the flying training mission is behind the scenes, but not forgotten about, with their shop overlooking the flight line they sometimes wave to student and instructor pilots before they take off, using the RAWS radios to speak to each other and air traffic controllers across the airspace.