Saving pilots' lives: One parachute at a time

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Kathleen D. Bryant
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
When an aircraft malfunctions, lives are at stake. If a pilot needs to eject from an aircraft, the equipment meant to save his life has to operate flawlessly in any scenario.

The Airmen responsible for packing this equipment and keeping it mission-ready for every A-10C Thunderbolt II pilot, belong to the 23d Operations Support Squadron aircrew flight equipment shop. 

"This job is intimidating because everything has to be done exactly right," said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jonathan Kunkle, 23d OSS AFE journeyman. "If it's not, you could kill somebody. You only get one shot, so everything has to be perfect."

Pilots' lives can depend on the AFE Airmen and the efficiency of the equipment.

"I know several pilots who have had to use [the equipment] and it worked correctly for all of them," said Maj. Zachary Laird, 23d Wing director of inspections and a 12-year A-10 pilot. "It gives me confidence that if something were to happen to the aircraft that the equipment is going to save my life. It allows me to come back and continue to do the job. Even though we might lose an aircraft out there, this equipment can save a trained pilot's life. (A person) is a lot harder to replace than a single aircraft."

Just as pilots require years of training, learning to maintain this equipment and ensuring it is safe and mission-ready takes time.

"To become 100 percent proficient, where you know the job inside and out, can take up to six months," said Kunkle. "Even after that time, you are always learning new things about it that you didn't know before. There's so much that goes into it, but I like packing parachutes because it's different. Once you get into it and really start to learn, it gets easier. You get more comfortable because you know what you're doing. It's a lot of fun."

Every week during in-process inspections parachutes are unpacked for quality control to help create proficiency within the shop.

"The Aces II parachute contains a 28-foot circular canopy that is stuffed down into a small container," said Kunkle. "Every repack inspection is good for a year. Sometimes they don't make it a full year depending on if the [23d Component Maintenance Squadron] egress shop wants to pull them early for deployment-related preparation.

"When we receive them, we unpack, inspect and repack it every single time," said Kunkle. "I've been doing this job for over three years now and I can get one done between four and six hours depending on what's wrong with it.

AFE personnel follow an in-process inspection checklist and then are inspected for quality control to guarantee everything is being done precisely.

"We have in-process inspections that are normally done by qualified craftsmen," said Kunkle. "You can't do [inspections] on yourself. The point is to get a second set of eyes on all the critical components."

AFE personnel not only handle parachutes, they also pack Aces II survival kits that are connected to the parachutes when a pilot has to eject from an aircraft.

The kit contains items such as a five-inch hunting knife, clothing items, a flashlight, spare batteries, a space blanket, 16 packs of water, a one-man life raft, raft repair plugs, a candle, a PRC-90 radio and other basic items that they might need.

"The kits contain things a pilot would need after ejecting from an aircraft," said Kunkle. "They are put underneath the seat where the pilot sits. It is attached to them, so when they eject it goes with the pilot [and] hangs off of them as they are coming down."

When packing the survival kits, AFE Airmen follow a technical order (TO) to make sure the kit is properly stocked and will pass inspection.

"We follow a TO which tells you everything you need to do, you basically follow the directions," said Senior Airman Ciara Jones, 23d OSS AFE journeyman. "There are times when we can get overwhelmed with the number of items that have to be inspected but, if somebody needs help then we help each other out."

Moody AFE Airmen work with approximately 60 parachutes and survival kits throughout the year and are expected to fill any orders needed in a timely manner.

"We work directly with the egress shop," said Kunkle. "They need things done in a certain time period because they don't want aircraft sitting around not flying. That's something that can get kind of stressful. Most of the time we have a spare ready-to-go if they need it, but sometimes they'll bring in the morning and may need it given back on the same day."

AFE personnel are responsible for the equipment that will get a pilot safely to the ground in a worst-case scenario and pilots must trust in them.