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The crisis in aircraft maintenance



Recently the Secretary of Defense James Mattis sent a memorandum to the service secretaries
directing certain fighter airframes meet a readiness standard of 80%. It's a good goal to set and I think it's achievable. However Mattis went on to direct this goal to be achieved by the end of FY19 [Oct 2019]. To reach this goal in a year will have catastrophic effects on the aircraft maintenance community.

First, fighter MC rates have been declining for more than a decade. There is a natural, inevitable decline as a fleet gets older.  On top of fleet age,
Graphic courtesy of the Air Force Times
avionics upgrades increase system complexity in 4th generation airframes. Those upgrades, while useful for combat capability, also increase time spent in maintenance. Additionally, sequestration and the 'across the board' cuts to all budgets created a ripple effect manifested as a shortage of parts, experience, personnel and sorties.

It seems fairly evident that as operational funds dried up, money for parts went with it. However, it's much worse than just a part shortage. Being starved for parts affects production decisions in a materially unhealthy way. Managers look for solutions to part 'holes' in aircraft in order to prepare them for the next day. They will cannibalize[CANN] serviceable parts from a designated aircraft. In the frequent event the designated aircraft lacks the desired part, managers will direct CANNs to any non-mission capable[NMC] aircraft. This creates double work for technicians. As instead of just working the single, broke aircraft they are actually removing and replacing the faulty part twice. This double work fuels my next point.

Experienced personnel get worn out by constant duplicate or 'proactive' maintenance[caveat: I have been known to do 'pre-emptive' maintenance and I didn't always make the right call, thus I am also to blame here]. The more supply can't meet the demands of the fleet, the more CANN actions happen. As sequestration and the degrading loop of budgetary continuing resolutions marched on, our most experienced personnel voted with their feet and simply left the services, leaving the inexperienced behind.

On top of the increased attrition of experienced maintainers by the crushing ops tempo and supply shortages, the Air Force [among other services] elected to slash almost 20,000 Airmen in 2014, shrinking the Air Force to it's smallest since it's creation.

Sequestration also hampered non-mission critical sorties causing aircrew skills to atrophy. This scarcity of sorties forced operations to make some hard decisions; decisions they likely have never had to make before. They had to differentiate between wants and needs. What is the bare minimum required to sustain operations?

For the first time, the Air Force was poor. Poor in every aspect of sortie generation.

This poverty is likely one of the many drivers of the fighter pilot exodus of the last 10 years. If I had to hazard a guess [as a lowly maintainer] the poverty only exposed the toxicity of careerism in the aviator ranks.

In the memorandum, Mattis suggests commercial aviation can observe military aviation processes and provide input. I'm sure there are some lean initiatives that can be applied cross-culturally; the reality is that the dynamic aerospace environment of the military is vastly different from the civilian sector. G forces, weapon systems, ejections systems, radar threat warning; the list goes on and on. Do we ask the local Chevy dealership to help us flow our Abram tank maintenance? No, its apples to oranges; much like flowing F-16 maintenance like a 747.

I did contract maintenance in the 21st AMU briefly in the spring and summer of 2018. We regularly maintained a 85%+ MC rate. Normally our only unavailable aircraft was our phase bird. The jets we were working were 20+ years old, but in reality their airframes were closer to 30+ years old. Does this mean the active force can achieve similar results?

No. For one, the 21st AMU is a Taiwanese outfit. Meaning they weren't affected by sequestration. Second, the experience of the maintainers in the 21st AMU is more than a 15 year average. That's an average! You won't find an active duty unit with anywhere close to the same for airframe experience. Finally, the jets were simply less complex than their active counterparts. All of these factors allowed them to succeed where the active duty faltered. We can't miracle these types of variables into an active unit. Again, it's an apples to oranges comparison.

But the most critical error of this mandate is Secretary Mattis is operating from the assumption that military leadership is in a healthy state.

It clearly is not. [and not, and not, and not]

Maintenance leadership is plagued by the same careerist rot we see in other career fields and other branches. We have created an environment that rewards leaders that avoid risk, and in so doing, avoid making tough decisions. We reward yes men and cowards with promotion. We ignore toxic climates for our people because the only metric that matters is productivity.

We worship these metrics to the detriment of quality, and then demand the highest quality from our people and blame them for cutting corners to meet the previously championed production goals.

Aircraft maintenance in it's current state, and more importantly at it's current resources [parts, time, manpower, experience] falls gravely short of meeting the standards of excellence espoused in all of our services core principles. We have gotten here because the only thing that has mattered for the last 10 years is producing sorties, regardless of the quality of the maintenance that went into those sorties.

Sure, we have QA, and yearly inspections [Whats the flavor of the week now? CUI? GUI? UCI, ORI, LCAP?] but those don't actually represent the real maintenance environment. And now demanding readiness will absolutely ensure our jets are at their most dangerous state. A state of the lowest quality for the sake of perceived 'readiness.'

The services will fail to meet this mandate. But those protecting their careers will use every manipulation at their disposal to try and meet it.

Because failure is not an option. Regardless of the resources provided, every military member is indoctrinated into the idea that failure of the unit, failure of the mission is a personal failure.

So the lowest level people will quite literally kill themselves in order to support this ridiculous mandate. Aircraft maintenance can not be satiated, it is always hungry for more work. With this mandate, toxic leaders will feed their personnel to the maintenance grinder until there are no more personnel worth feeding. The people will forego medical appointments, working out or family commitments. And when they fail a PT test or their marriage collapses due to their absence, those charged with caring for them will cast them aside as bad airmen; incapable of maintaining their fitness or finances.

The most experienced will get burnt out, leaving once again, a galactic experience gap in the maintenance ranks that can't be shored up in time before the next out of touch mandate comes from the powers that be.

I'd like to think Secretary Mattis has directed this increase in readiness because he has the foresight to know we as a country will soon need those capabilities. Perhaps he knows the 80% isn't attainable but setting the bar high will ensure our failure to reach it still lands far higher than we would've gotten without it.

My concern is that Secretary Mattis is out of touch with the field due to his position. That the yes men below him, jockeying for position in their own careers, are unwilling to communicate how dire the situation is in maintenance.

The memorandum reads as if maintenance is capable to reach 80%, but we have just gone too easy on them and it's time they pull their weight. After serving 20 years in aircraft maintenance, I assure you these men and women in aircraft maintenance are performing daily miracles just to keep their heads above water.

I hope and pray that I am wrong, but I don't think I am.

Check out the follow up article located here.

If you're in aircraft maintenance, please tell me what you think of this mandate in the comments below. Also follow 20 Years Done on Facebook for more discussions and updates.

Comments

  1. Been in 10 years working C5s. I saw the great NCO Hiatus around 13/14 and we are feeling it hard now. Lots of SNCOs and lots of Airman but NCOs, ones with experience anyway, are very few and very far between. The amount of weight thrust in their shoulders is gargantuan and it’s only increasing. Somethings gotta give. You summed up the last 7 years perfectly.

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    1. After more than 20 years in the tanker (KC-135) community I see younger airmen not being trained to think for themselves. Being trained to go strictly by the book without thinking outside the box. It creates an environment of workers not profesinoal mechanics. With the ever increasing age of our fleet of aircraft it becomes more difficult to maintain the high MC rates. It seems like the upper management in these units just wants to punch holes in the sky in order to look good for their upward advancement. This creates an environment of exhaustion, and frustration which drives maintainers out of the service. There doesn't seem to be an end to it an I foresee the problem only getting worse.

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  2. Definitely concur here. I've only been in heavy world, where "slow is fast" is an accepted and strictly adhered-to way of life.

    However, I can attest that my fighter mx brethren are overworked, undermanned, and wayyy too stressed out to be able to push any harder than they are right now. Catastrophic mistakes have recently been cropping up fairly frequently, and more so than "higher ops tempo" could account for.

    In my personal opinion, these people need to catch a break from the 16 hour shifts, dysfunctional leadership, and unforgiving flying schedule. It's brutal, what I've been seeing these people go through. Tackle those issues first, then let's talk about increasing the MC rate, Sec. Mattis.

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  3. SSgt - F-15E: As a direct reflection of this mandate I now head the permanent weekend duty crew to ensure jets are green for Monday's sortie requirements. I will work Friday through Monday with my assembled team (quite varying levels of experience) and will hopefully focus on maintenance versus ancillary items such as wash. One can only hope though.

    -SSgt Jones

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    1. There is noting more wrong than a weekend duty washrack crew.....OMG

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  4. Every time I read one of these posts I'm glad I looked that master stripe in the eye and pulled chocks rather than deal with more of this bullshit. I loved working avionics on the viper, but it wasn't worth dealing with the draw downs and the overworking and the general fuckery of the airmen.

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  5. 100% agree. Where I'm working right now, we have 40 year old jets, a bunch of crusty ssgts who are getting the bejeezus worked outta them and a cadre of young amn who are clueless as to why the ssgts are so angry at life. We flex our hours, our manning, and our personal lives in a vain attempt to satiate the sortie God. We spent a few months with reduced flights, but supervision wanted to "try" just 1 10 front a week. Just to see if we can do it. Now we are doing them every other day as the norm because we blend and bent and made it happen. We dont focus on a quality fix, we focus on a fast one. It wont be long before something shitty happens, I promise you that.

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  6. C5 maintainer here, I cannot agree enough w/ what you have said. While my squadron has been getting a bit better, there is still a major lack of experience and manning. We CANN constantly due to supply issues. PT failure is high, I've seen a few divorces, and the only moral we have is the jokes between each other. A lot of what you describe is already happening and it honestly feels like there is no end in site. The same game of yes men mentality and everything being CANNable (Even tires) when it shouldn't be. We've waisted countless hours on CANNs and have had times where 1 broke jet turns into two due to the component not working. TOs are a joke and are half finished. Multiple have A/B model information that are outdated and with no incentive to fill out AFTO 22s, it will not get fixed. But we sure as hell have watched leadership get giant award trophies (Like 24-30 inches tall) for mission capability when it was us that got it for them. The guys working 13+ hour shifts, the people working as fast as possible. (Now, I'm not in a fighter squadron so I guess I can't speak much for tempo as compared to my counterparts.) We miss everything w/ no holidays. Alcohol cures the pain for some, anti-depressants for others. Sorry to give off a giant rant but you are correct sir. Honestly, this gets held in because how do we tell the people that are the problem, that they 'are' the problem?

    Thank you for 20 years of service,
    Anon

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  7. Such misrepresentation of data..
    How about going back 10 years on MC rates and see how some aircraft have stayed between 50-60%.
    What type of miracle is going to happen between now and Oct 2019 to think these rates will at least raise to 70%

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  8. Money, people (experience), and parts are what it will take to get the FMC rate back up. Money can be infused almost immediately but people (experience) and parts will take time of which Mattis gave very little. The end result will be a failed attempt at an impossible goal.

    I would add one other thing to what lead the fleet to where it is currently. 1997 Chief Funk who was the fighter functional decided he wanted generalists instead of specialists. He said to me as a young SSgt that we didn't need to know what happened inside the box, we only needed to know what the BIT system told us to change.

    The BIT system/FI doesn't always give you the right answer the first time, sometimes it doesn't at all.

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  9. A1C, F-15C crew chief. I'll be honest, I haven't been on the line long as I'm currently at my first duty station, but I've already seen the corruption in leadership. It's disgusting, dibilating, and causes so many airmen like me to not even think twice about getting out as soon as we possibly can. I enjoy crewing jets. Sure, it's difficult, stressful, and you'll get fucked way quicker as a maintainer then any other field. They say maintainers have the same opportunities as every other field, but that really depends on the lines leadership. For instance, the food that we are entitled. There's the occasional day I'm so busy working that I don't get the chance to go to the dining facility at all. Even more often than that, I have to purchase my own food because the hours of the flightline don't revolve around the facilities. You also have to have permission to get food, so if there's something to be done, leadership will most likely ask you to get it done before you leave, right around the time jets are landing and you have to recover and inspect. There's very few that I've noticed that genuinely care for their airmen, and do not allow their airmen to run themselves into the ground. It's a promotion race now, and they don't give a damn about anything besides their own progression, while I know a few people have to attend therapy just to cope with the bullshit that goes on. That doesn't count the things that happen in their homes. It also says something about our leadership's leadership. A flight chief of mine asked for recommendations for therapists. There's shouldn't be a need for that. It makes me incredibly displeased to see the people I care about slowly being degraded day after day. I want to love this job. I want to love everything about the AirForce. I want to stay in 20 years and be the leadership that I believe that I deserved. But at this rate, I honestly have no idea how far I'm going to make it. I'm only human.

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    1. Keep your chin up. Speak up when something is wrong. Look out for your friends, and they will look out for you.

      The worse the times, the better the friends you make.

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  10. I was a jeep SSgt when SSI/VSI hit. AF maintenance has never recovered from the massive loss of experience SSgts & TSgts with that debacle, and they have continued to push the do more with less madness ever since. Perhaps the founders' militia plan wasn't sp bad after all...

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  11. I was TSGT crew Chief on 17s. I was an expediter and would not fall into the careerism I saw rampantly emerging in the AF. I refused to leave work early for PT unless I was mandated to do so. I was part of the sequestration and the beginning of what you stated about those who were failing PT. I couldnt get off the line, I refused to leave before my shift was off the line. But, I was forced out because of PT failures, granted I didnt meet a standard set before me. But making sure my guys and ladies were taken care of, the missions were flying, were more important to me than how fast I could run around a track. Now, that Im out I am seeing the damages to my family, my marriage is being rebuilt, as well as my relationships with my children, because for years I could not let the unit fail and the mission had to work

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  12. Jeff Casper MSGT (retired)October 17, 2018 at 5:13 PM

    B1-B (10 years), B52-H (6 years), B2-A (6 years) (Edwards AFB all three at the same time), HH-53 (18 months), and KC-135 (6 years) over a twenty year career. (That was a metric shit ton of 5/7 level CDCs). I will not get into the poison I had to bleed out of my system when I retired in 2015, but I will sum it all up in the acronym a lot of troops had laser etched on their reflector belts the last time I was in the Deid. "Fabulous Maintenance Life" AKA: "Fuck My Life". Maintenance is a rough career, everything he said in his article is true and I know I and I'm sure many others have had far worse experiences to tell stories about. There is a laundry lists of things that need to be fixed before the General is going to see honest numbers anywhere approaching the 80's. (Most of the readiness numbers incredibly heavily inflated.) He can start by cleaning house in supervision and start cutting every little idiot program that has nothing to do with aircraft maintenance and everything with trouser sniffing for promotion. That would be a good start.

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  13. In the early to mid 1980s I was a 431, crew chief, on A-10s. It was the same story then. Every day was a 12 hour day because we just didn't have the people to do a proper job, without beating the maintainers half to death, every day. The cost of doing business includes having proper staffing to meet the demands. To lay blame on overwork and stressed out flunkies is to assure they find some place else to be at the earliest opportunity. Which leaves the folks who sit in a warm office out of the elements, who go home after 8 every day and enjoy rapid advancement, wondering why there's a crisis in the ranks that actually keep the AF in the air.

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  14. As a prior commercial maintainer and now military maintainer, I believe we could learn a few things from commercial aviation. The first that comes to mind is the ridiculous amount of bookwork involved with military repair work. Have trust in your mechanic and T.I.. Commercial maintainer sign off an engine change with limited sign off. Reference the damn manual and sign off as "Ops check good"! If the FAA trust that as acceptable to an aircraft that transports 100's of people at once, why can't we have the same trust?

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  15. Everything you noted is spot on. I appreciate you putting into words what so many of us have discussed over the last 10 years or so. I will be sharing this with Wing, NAF and MAJCOM leadership.

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  16. I spent 8 & 1/2 years in as a F16 crew chief (03 to 11). The AF was great at one thing: promoting glad handers and brown toungers. Everything, literally, is set up to shit on maintenance. Chow hall? Not open for swings or mids (except when I was in Germany, then only at certain times) If you were days, then only at certain times (invariably when jets were due down or during turns/hot pits). Why? They're staffed by civillians who are paid by the hour, and the nonners and ops always bitch the loudest, so they set the hours. Admin? Finance? Nonner X? Same answer, but they also close for training/lunch/pt/squad events and only hold hours on the days they do manage to be open from 9 to 3, approximately. Since pay in the AF is by grade, rather than nature of work, the guys sitting in the a/c fucking up finances or handing out basketballs at the gym get paid the same as the guy busting his knuckles open in the elements and shaking with fever greening up the squad turd whose dcc or wipes are too lazy to crew right the first time, where is the incentive to be a mech in the first place? And, the OP is right about every point he makes. Throw in lack of pt time (one thing Spangdahlem got right) and careerists willing to stab their fellow mechs in the back for their next promotion, along with a smattering of pencil whipped idiots who should NEVER be allowed anywhere near a safety critical system, let alone a $50 million dollar death machine, a supply chain that is laughablely short of parts (CANN should never be a normal practice; google revenge of the maintenance officer for more about that) and senior leadership at all levels who would rather just shuffle their problem airmen about than actually deal with them (and congragulate themselves for it); put all of that together, and you will begin to approximate the general shitty state of the Air Force. And, that is true at any ops tempo; at higher tempos, it gets much, much worse.

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    1. I came here to say this. I was a SSGT on F-15s from 96-05 and everything about this post was true for me as well. I'd add on that even at our squadron level, the crew chiefs were the last off the flight line for any mandatory fun event. Thanksgiving was always the big one, everyone would be halfway through their first plate before we even got to go in. The most glaring part of teamwork in the Air Force meant that you were a team, until it was time to go home, go to squadron events, etc. Then it was you guys are maintainers, stay and maintain the aircraft while everyone else goes home/has fun/etc. It won't change for 2 reasons, 1. OICs at the squadron level have no idea what it is to work for a living (with a few exceptions, my last OIC was a fellow crew chief i went to tech school with) and there's very few pilots who understand what it takes to keep a machine capable of flying. Just have them come out for the old pilot training day, if they do those any more. 2. Most of the SNCOs were non-crew chiefs or fast burning crew chiefs, for every 1 good crew chief I had in a leadership position, there were 4 who spent as little time as possible on the flight line as a wrench turner. And I'd say that the crew chief SNCOs were the worst because all of them had the "I had it this bad when I was a crew chief so now when I'm in a leadership position, I'm going to make sure everyone else had it as bad as I did." (We had one flight chief whose answer to everything was "At least you're not sucking rubber in Korea, like I did"). So either the SNCOs were soured or they had no experience with actually keeping an aircraft airworthy. You'll never have a good shop if the people who run it don't know HOW to run it. That's the Air Force's problem, they put people in leadership positions who have no business being there because they're pegs that fit a hole.

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  18. Oh it is nice to see that nothing has changed in the years since I left the Military. The completely clueless will be telling maintainers how to do their jobs. And when, more like if, someone asks maintainers the reasons why the FMC numbers are dropping, they will choose not to hear the answers, they will just tell the maintainers, "Just make it happen!"
    Of course what is going to happen? They will do whatever they can make the numbers. Maintainers will not be allowed to actually troubleshoot problems and production will use "shotgun maintenance" methods to fix things. Instead of changing out the correct part, maintainers will be encouraged change out multiple parts to fix the problem. Even worse, maintainers will be "Highly Encouraged" not to write up problems with the aircraft, (Hip pocket write ups) and others will be "Bullied" into working on components and systems that they are not qualified to work or even touch for that matter. And, when it all goes wrong, Production Supers will do what they do best, claim ignorance and throw the maintainer under the bus!
    Now I know that there will be someone out there who will read this and say, there is simply no way this can happen! Sorry, I have seen way too many flightlines operate in this manner, and I highly doubt that it will ever change. As long as stats equal stripes in the production world, maintainers are going to get screwed!

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  19. I've worked the line for 5 1/2 years. C-130j E/E troop SrA. I've done things I'm proud of and done things in not proud of just for "the mission". I can't say I've been awarded for anything in my entire career... I cant say that at all.
    I've done everything asked of me and then some. I have trained every damn person that has come through my shop since I've recieved my 5 lvl. For 5 years I've given blood,sweat,tears,time,and sanity to my squadron because I love my guys.
    All I've ever asked for was a break. Whether it be a debrief position, or passing out tools. The only answer I got was you're one of the best E/E troops we have. We can't afford to lose you. I was proud to hear that, but also sad.
    I've had one surgery on my shoulder from torn rotator cuff from wear and tear of the job. That was the first time I received a break which was only 4 months.
    I have done many thing in my career I'm proud off. But I'm ready to leave I was never taken care of. I never received the recognition I feel I deserved. Not a single award. But with all said and done. I did my part and wouldn't change my performance. I saved countless lives, and gained so much experience, not only as a maintenance crew member but as a human being.
    I will not be re-enlisting I'm done. I've done my time. And that is my story. Thank you for reading.

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    1. E&E for life. When every other mx field has a problem they can't fix, they call E&E. While working at Cannon I got called to troubleshoot a fuel valve with literally two wires going to it. Power and ground. The fuels guys had a multimeter on site, every single one of em(4 man crew) were signed off on using said multimeter. 3 lvl, 2 5-lvl's, and a 7 lvl. Not a single one actually knew how to use it... When my 7 lvl found out he went to the fuel shop, grabbed their paper 623's, and erased their multimeter use sign off. Funniest damn thing I ever saw at Cannon.

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  20. It's the same over in the UK, 21 years on various types, I've watches the decimation of the military to dangerous levels. The skills fade is colossal, I though after the H-C report, we'd have paid attention and upped our game, sadly it seems we did for the briefest of times, but things are on the downward spiral again. The spares system is a joke, the companies we've sup-contracted the work out to don't fix kit to anything like the standard we used to, so constant U/S on fit assets, wasting hours and hours. I can't remember the last time I wasn't shattered, and that goes across the Sqn at the moment.

    Our government have recently admitted that there are glaring holes in the aircraft trades manpower, but their plan to address the issue was an insult. People are leaving in their droves, good lads, hard workers, leaving behind only those who aren't so good or are caught in the pension trap.

    Sadly I fear we're heading towards something major going wrong, it's almost inevitable.

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  21. This might be the most accurate article I've ever read. It really is all about the numbers. Do more with less will only get us so far until people will literally "kill themselves" to "make it happen" at the expense of their life, their health, and their presence as a mother/father. This article captures everything many of us maintainers feel is actually happening and a reality that looks to be irreversible.

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  22. I started my 40 year maintenance career in the 92nd AMS at Fairchild AFB. I have seen the same type of predicaments off and on again my whole career. I am so sorry to hear it is the same in the Air Force now. This article was so well written that I believe you can make changes. Please continue to fight for maintenance excellence on this critical aspect of our countries defense. Thank you for your words.

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  23. I worked in the aircraft maint. field for close to 15 years. During that time I worked the line, phase, and backshop. I worked on F-16's, KC-135's, and C-130's. I PCS'd on average of once every two years for most of that time. I got out of the military on a medical discharge because the stress of working mx field ended up giving me two heart conditions(A-fib and Syncopy). I've been told by physical therapists that I have the functional body of a 50 year old while only in my mid 30's. Everything mentioned in this story is 100% true, and it saddens me. Throughout all the units I was in, I would say leadership didn't shaft their workers in only one of them. (Cannon AFB 04-08) That's a sad thought...

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