Joint STARS: Deployed maintainers saving lives

by Senior Airman Benjamin Stratton
379th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

7/4/2013 – SOUTHWEST ASIA — U.S. and coalition ground forces deployed to the U.S. Central Command area of operations depend on many different airframes and assets to complete their day-to-day operations including the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System maintained by the 7th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Unit and operated by the 7th Expeditionary Airborne Command and Control Squadron here.

Joint STARS provides ground situation information through communication via secure data links with Air Force command posts, Army mobile ground stations and centers of military analysis far from the point of conflict. Joint STARS provides a picture of the ground situation equivalent to that of the air situation provided by the E-3 Sentry (Airborne Warning and Control System). Joint STARS is capable of determining the direction, speed and patterns of military activity of ground vehicles and helicopters.

But these jets can’t support the joint warfighter without the tireless efforts of 7th EAMU Airmen deployed from Robins Air Force Base, Ga., the U.S. military’s only Joint STARS installation.

“Our job is to make sure we provide a safe and reliable aircraft to the aircrew,” said Capt. Stephanie Furrer, the 7th EAMU officer in charge. “Our aircraft fly a lot of hours, so we complete an array of inspections to ensure all the aircraft’s systems are good and the airframe is sound.”

Furrer explained there are a lot of maintenance and man hours that go into keeping these jets in the air. Her Airmen complete several different inspections including a 45-day “home station check” over all the systems on board the aircraft, as well as a 700-hour contingency inspection that goes more in-depth.

“This is to make sure all parts of the jet get the specialized care they need,” she said.

Maintenance work on the Joint STARS has led to a fleet viability board certifying the jet for another 25 years of operations, officials said.

“The thing I like the most about our jet is engine maintenance is strictly mechanical due to their age,” said Staff Sgt. Marco Vega, a 7th EAMU aerospace propulsion craftsman. “In the same way, as old as these things are, and the work they do deployed here in the constant heat of the desert, it doesn’t take a lot to fail. But that’s where we come in — we work long hours to make sure this jet has just as many successful take-offs as landings — for a maintainer, it doesn’t get much better.”

Joint STARS were first deployed in Operation DESERT STORM in 1991 when still in development, and have since been deployed in support of various operations around the globe including ongoing operations in Afghanistan.

“What we do, how we support the mission downrange, means a lot to me,” said Chief Master Sgt. Gary Wakefield, the 7th EAMU chief. “My oldest boy is a Marine infantryman currently deployed to an undisclosed location — so whatever we can do to help coalition ground forces is huge.”

That sentiment can be found with many of the unit’s maintainers as service is a way of life for these Airmen and their families.

“We all have a significant investment in our operations,” Furrer said. “We take what we do very seriously and I love it.”

Because of the efforts contributed by Joint STARS maintainers over the years, this iteration of the secondhand Boeing 707-300 series commercial airframe, has amassed more than 71,000 hours of flying time. According to former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper, these hours, including those supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, have saved countless lives.

“When a sandstorm all but blinded optical sensors, the Joint STARS’ wide area surveillance [19,000 square miles] and moving target indicator pinpointed Iraqi forces on the move,” the general recounted. “We were watching these guys, with the Joint STARS and the ground moving target indicator radars, coming out of Baghdad trying to reinforce the Medina Division, and the B-1s and the B-52s were up there pounding the heck out of them because of the sensory data the Joint STARS provided.”

This sentiment of saving lives is a theme that’s echoed across the 7th EAMU.

“So many people depend on you to make the mission a go, every day,” said Master Sgt. Willie Blow, the 7th EAMU production supervisor. “We do a lot of inspections and preventative maintenance alongside ‘catching’ the aircraft and getting it ready for its next mission. It’s great to see everyone’s hard work come together. It makes you feel special that at the end of the day, that mission your aircraft just left for could save lives downrange.”

[Editor’s note: This article is part one of a three part series highlighting the E-8C Joint STARS deployed mission.]

Published by Benjamin W. Stratton

I'm a photojournalist traveling the world sharing what I experience along the way.

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