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So what's with the 7 levels?

I recently asked in a Facebook post what are some subjects you the readers wanted me to write about. I received quite a few great suggestions, but one stood out as a topic that I haven't quite addressed and I believe its time is due: inexperienced 7 levels. [I will apologize in advance, this one has quite a bit of acronyms.]

Before I dive into the topic I think it's important to explain my own journey to a 7 level, and it goes all the way back to MEPS. You see, like many aspiring Airmen I didn't know what job I would get when I joined the Air Force; I came in open mechanical. Which to me seemed strange, because mechanical was my lowest ASVAB score. My recruiter assured me that my score would allow me many mechanical jobs to pick from. I tried to explain that the ASVAB was an aptitude test, and I should be selected for a job that matched my highest category. He seemed apathetic, obviously meeting his quota was his motivator, not me aligning my career to my aptitude.

To say I was not mechanically inclined is an epic understatement. Until tech school the most complex mechanical system I [unsuccessfully]worked on was the rear tire of my 10-speed bike. Tech school itself was a blur. Each task only barely entering my memory and then just as quickly whisked away to make room for the next. I was the type of Airmen that OJT was created for.

I made SSgt during the 'Great Staff Giveaway' in 2000; something of a 70% promotion rate. At my 3 1/2 year mark I had full Red Xs. While I admit I was a hard worker, in hindsight I can also admit having my Red Xs at such an early time in my career was probably not the best idea. I didn't necessarily do anything dangerous or reckless, however looking back it's quite amazing how much system knowledge I didn't have. But in all seriousness, 3 1/2 years? Not including tech school it was 3 years on the line. Kind of crazy when I think about it.

Shortly after receiving my Red Xs I PCS'd to Osan and promptly sewed on SSgt. I was fortunate to be assigned to phase which allowed me to greatly expand my maintenance experience in a relatively short time. But even with that phase experience, at the end of my tour in Korea I still was only at my 4 year mark.

My follow-on assignment was Luke Air Force Base. I was assigned to the 310th AMU and promptly moved to swing shift. My expediter on swing shift was a TSgt Brian Ingram, a bit of a crusty NCO that looked like Val Kilmer's shorter cousin.

A few weeks into my time on shift, he pulled up to me at the start of the shift and told me one of our jets was Code-3 for a light in the gear handle under Gs. I responded in some sort of casual 'Oh that sucks' not realizing he was actually assigning me to run the fix on it. He looked at me like he was trying to ascertain if I was an idiot, or a smart ass. He correctly identified me as an idiot. 'No, I mean you are working it.'

At first I was excited. Then I realized I wasn't very proficient with landing gear... or really even troubleshooting. I looked around for the other seven levels, only to realize I was the only one. I suddenly was very aware at how much I did not know about the F-16. I had this ridiculous expectation that as a seven level I should know everything. Even worse, I thought everyone else shared that same expectation of me. After serving 20 years I know better, on both counts. But because of that expectation I was afraid to ask questions for fear of people thinking I was dumb. 

So, I psychologically dusted myself off and remembered the trusty 32FI. Of course! I could just reference the Fault Isolation manual. So I began flipping through the pages, looking for a fault that sounded similar to what was squawked. Before I could find something close the jet had shutdown and TSgt Ingram called for me to come out to the spot.

The AGE was already parked out front waiting for me. So I opened the 32 FI to track down what the wise makers of the F-16 thought it could be. I wasn't very savvy with navigating the FI and it took me longer than I expected to find the fault code, but eventually I did.

'Light in the gear handle under Gs.'

How bout that? My exact problem! The very first step was to inspect the uplock  rollers for flat spots. After a quick look I saw tons of flat spots on each roller. I thought to myself 'this is going to be the quickest fix ever! Straight from the T.O.!'

I quickly removed the rollers and flagged down TSgt Ingram, smiling ear-to-ear. When he pulled up I told him I had found the problem and I would have the jet fixed in no time. He asked what it was and I held up my hand containing 2 uplock rollers while simultaneously stating with confidence they 'had flat spots.'

He looked at my hand, then looked at me. He slapped the bottom of my hand, sending the rollers flying into the air, 'That's not the problem. All rollers look like that.' TSgt Ingram knew the fix would be somewhere in the uplock rig. Either the pin, the rod end or maybe the switch. Sure, it could've been something a bit more rare [a frayed wire on a door actuator maybe], but he knew for sure it wasn't some bullshit flat spots on a roller.

But he didn't tell me what he wanted me to change; he just wanted me to figure it out. I'm sure he had a Pro Super breathing down his neck, asking for status updates. Maybe giving a long sigh when the ETC [Estimated Time of Completion] was bumped again. TSgt Ingram gave me room to fail, and learn.

A few months later we entered a substantial death spiral, driven by continuous and multiplying JFS no-starts. At this time we didn't have DESSC's installed in the jets, so our troubleshooting was almost entirely by observation of the behavior. My peer group in maintenance was in a weird gap between people that would use the ESS tester and when DESSCs were installed in all the jets. Because of this, our JFS troubleshooting was a bit of a shit-show.
I only once witnessed the ESS Tester being used. The technician reminded me of Oz operating behind the curtain.

The no-starts drug on for months. Night after night we would chase components. Many of the jets had intermittent issues, so we would believe they were fixed, only to have the same problem return days later.

In short order I began exhausting the fault trees. however much to my dismay the jets weren't actually fixed. I was simply running out of tech data to tell me what to do. This is kind of when that little devil sits on your shoulder. Where those excuses creep into your mind.

'Well it starts on the second start, so it's still good.'

'The jet just has gremlins. It can't be fixed.'

'The FI said return to service, so we don't need to keep troubleshooting it.'

These are all bullshit, and deep down everyone knows it. The jets were still broke, and no one would accept our weak excuses.

TSgt Ingram never micromanaged us. Even though our 12s and 13s were his 13s and 14s [if not more]. He was always willing to lean against a wing tank and talk through the behavior, and every once in awhile he would give feedback on our theories; either supporting them or shooting them down.

I eventually evolved to reading the complete theory of operation while using the schematics to visualize the sequence. After months of troubleshooting we began seeing progress; one-by-one the jets began to start reliably again. It cost all of us dearly. The time with our families missed, our hobbies neglected. But we all were better start system troubleshooters and mechanics because of it.

They say it takes 5-7 years to 'grow a 7 level.' What they don't say is what actually feeds that growth.


Ego smashing, humbling failure.

We don't do what TSgt Brian Ingram did anymore. Now we give the technicians about a day and a half to figure it out, then the morning meeting armchair quarterbacks start figuring it out for them. Because no one has the stomach or the faith to let their technicians get their asses thoroughly kicked anymore. No one understands the value of those ass kickings.

Now the expeditor tells the Pro Super bits and pieces of the maintenance. The Pro Super decides on a troubleshooting course of action without the whole picture. The expeditor in-turn directs their technicians without giving them a chance to figure it out. When it doesn't get fixed within a day or two the OIC gets their shit pushed in at the group meeting and before they can actually lead their unit AFETS is asked to intervene or even worse an engineering request is submitted.

While these actions may get the jet repaired we didn't allow our technicians to grow. This happens all the time [Both as a Pro Super and Lead Pro Super I was guilty of doing this as well, if anyone remembers a Friday Rudder ISA CANN, sorry.] and in so doing we stunt the growth of our technicians. It also happens in almost every unit.

It boils down to the same things over and over.

  • The mission is not [and has not been for a long time] adequately resourced.
  • The ops tempo is high all the time. This high tempo is the new normal, units aren't even resourced for a normal tempo.
  • Volunteerism and self-improvement were the primary discriminators for promotion. In effect placing non-mission related metrics as the highest priority. This has diluted technical expertise in leadership for decades.
  • SNCOs will be passed over for promotion if they don't follow their leaders blindly. This truth removes crucial, bias-defeating sounding boards from discussions.
  • Careerism exists at the lowest CGO levels, assuring they will be risk averse.
  • No one tells senior maintenance managers they are wrong so those managers feel compelled to get into the weeds and make decisions well below their pay grades. We see this when Group Commanders and above peel apart everything.
  • Personnel at the lowest levels feel powerless to do anything, or make any decisions, so they stop trying and caring.
  • Ironically, senior leaders show faux concern for their people [just enough to get them to work]
  • A ridiculous 80% MC rate by October 2019 mandate.
I know, I sound like a broken record. It's really hard to explain but each of these problems are not isolated. They speak to the broader culture that is completely broken in the Air Force. This is the environment we are raising our Airmen in. Is it any wonder we have an NCO corps that aren't strong maintenance technicians?

Whats worse is there will be a few, lone 7 levels that either were given the latitude to learn or were just naturally gifted at maintenance. And now the majority of the maintenance effort is resting on their shoulders.

So what do we do about the other 7 levels, the paper 7 levels?

What they need is help. 

They need a work center environment where the animosity of their 7 level peers is traded for support in helping them catch up and learn. It's not easy. But it's important we all recognize the situation for what it is: It is nearly impossible to grow an experienced maintainer without the opportunities to fail and struggle. If you're a seasoned 7 level and you're angry you have to carry a heavier burden than your peers, don't take it out on them. Recognize it is the broken maintenance culture that has created that environment. The only way to make it better is to involve the less qualified, without projecting your own frustration into the relationship.

Expeditors always seek out their A-team to get the hardest jobs done. This doesn't grow their B, C or D-teams. 

Someone, at some level has to be the one to make the call and just tell everyone above them the jet isn't fixed and their people are figuring it out. 

I wrote a story about Col Victor Mora in April of last year; one of my first articles. Col Mora made Developing Airmen his number one priority in his Maintenance Group. He understood that if you don't invest in your people now, you are destroying your future.

He gave me a ton of rope to hang myself on multiple occasions; and because of it I was a better technician. Col Mora was willing to let me fail, and in so doing he would fail as well. But he, like TSgt Brian Ingram, recognized that failure was a cost of business in aircraft maintenance. You can't eliminate it. The best you can do is risk failure where there are the greatest rewards, even if they aren't immediate.

Be sure to follow 20 Years Done on Facebook and comment on your experience in aircraft maintenance.


  1. Great piece. I can relate on many levels. I particularly agree with your assessment about the time it takes to learn.

  2. Yes, this is true right down to the last word. A/C mx is a ruthless job and the is no room for failure because if you fail, higher ups don't get promoted so they see it fit to intervene and fix it for you or get someone else to do it. 20 years in the mx world and it is only getting worse. Number chasing is priority... not OJT. Pro Supers and Commanders say " We don't chase numbers", WRONG! It is always the same song and dance, they will do everything in their power to look good... even rob you of valuable OJT.

    1. The more they deny chasing numbers, the more they are lying. The louder and more often the leadership denies it, the later your swing shift works.

  3. Everything is accurate all the way down to the forfeiture of the core values to enhance your career. I appreciate your honesty, but you didn't stand your ground either. My biggest struggle as a SNCO has been other SNCOs without a back bone. I didn't make the rank I wanted to, but I sleep well knowing that my service was actually service

    1. I think the body of evidence I have provided across the last 10 months in this blog proves I did stand my ground.

  4. Nice summary. I worked at Shaw from 1999 to 2003 and thanked my lucky stars to have 2 plus years in Phase to build upon when I got to the line. The problem is exacerbated when we drive to achieve the numbers at home. When deployed, fighting the real battle is where we should use the A team not at home. At home the A team should be mentoring and teaching as much as possible
    I was lucky enough to have SSgt Mike Kio teach me. I'll never forget the friendly "if you can tell me what that is and what it does, I'll buy you a coke" quiz session we had every day at shift change.

  5. Just discovered this. I did 20 years and one week. I retired in 1991. I was an AGE guy, but I saw a lot of this coming. I also spent the last 15 years before I retired for good (two years ago) in the C-17 Program for the Big B. The Active Duty/ANG/Reservist techs relied heavily on the FSTRs. I wasn't a FSTR, I actually did a job that usually fell to a "blue suiter" on non C-17 bases, but the Big B had the contract. But as I traveled around to the various bases and talked to some of the troops, it was clear that few were much more than "R&R" specialists It's all R&R maintenance any more. No one "fixes" anything.

    It's all political. Just get the EPR bullet.


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