EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --
One unique aspect of Eielson is its seasons; in fact it only really has two seasons -- RED FLAG-Alaska season and RF-A preparation season.
The Airmen at the 354th Maintenance Squadron's munitions flight know this very well.
"We support the 18th Aggressor Squadron with countermeasures and training missives," said Master Sgt. Rick Hedrick, the 354th MXS munitions flight materiel superintendent. "We ensure the [pilots] are good to go for their training combat hours and maintain their qualifications, so when RED FLAG season comes around, they're ready to rock and roll."
To that end, the munitions flight has five operating locations where its Airmen actively build and inspect munitions and then store them in earth-covered igloos, which are large bunkers covered by earth that are isolated from the rest of the base.
"In general, we assemble chaff and flare, stuff it in modules, deliver it to the 18th Aggressors and process their expenditures [when they get back]," said Staff Sgt. Eleanor Coan, a 354th MXS munitions systems crew chief currently assigned to the chaff and flare operating location.
Every explosive munition Airmen work with is dangerous and must be handled with proper care.
"Flare is probably the most dangerous thing we have. It's electrically initiated, so static electricity could set it off," Coan said. "Once a little electricity hits the primer on it, it fires off a spark on the inside which pushes the flare and everything out with enough force to launch it out of the aircraft and into the airstream. It's very beautiful and very, very hot."
To prevent static discharge, Airmen working on the flares must wear wristbands that ground them to some form of metal while they work; they also cannot wear any cotton clothes such as the waffle-top undershirt as it generates more static electricity.
"Safety is our top priority," Coan said.
Risks like this become all the more prevalent when RF-A starts and new units begin to use the operating locations with the 354th munitions flight.
That risk is compounded by foreign military partners who use different names for the same equipment and the ever-present language barrier, Coan said.
When RF-A gets underway, more than 1,000 extra personnel arrive with their own munitions and aircraft.
"We're responsible for the support and bed-down of all the [temporary duty] units that come in, so basically we absorb them into our unit," Hedrick said. "Right now, we have five units we are working with. We bring them in and integrate them into our operations. They work as a team together to build each other's munitions and we provide the oversight, support and equipment."
During this time, the extra units all share the munitions flight facilities for their own munitions operations.
"We basically help them take custody of their assets and process each time they fire something off," Coan said.
During RF-A season, munitions Airmen join many other units at Eielson burning the midnight oil, working 24-hour operations in a three-shift system.
The other units on temporary duty at Eielson also need to pull such shifts in order to keep up with their own munitions demands, and it is the job of the munitions control facility to determine who is going where to build what, Hedrick said.
"The melding together of all personnel is on us," Hedrick explained. "Depending on what they are requesting to drop munitions-wise, each unit is responsible for bringing their supporting personnel according to their allocation. The more they want to drop, the more personnel they are required to bring to support their mission operations."
Depending on which operation facility munitions Airmen may be assigned, they could have little or extensive interaction with the visiting units.
"The [Republic of Korea air force] airmen were here last week building GBU-10s and we walked them through the whole process," said Senior Airman Justin Ponder, a 354th MXS munitions flight munitions systems journeyman.
"If multiple units, including foreign units, are flying the same type of chaff or flare as us, we'll just take a couple of people form each unit and do a massive build. This is what they all pull from," Coan said. "They each have their own expenditure limits and allocations, so we don't give them more than each unit is allotted."
One of the objectives of RF-A is to increase interoperability between allied forces to create a stronger, more unified force. That mission reaches beyond the skies and is evident in ground-level missions like this one.
"We've got five units that all want to do different things at the same spot, so having to [organize] that, and overcome those language barriers with the foreign units can be challenging," Hedrick said. "We are always able to [accomplish] the mission and get it done."