Every day at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, crew chiefs, flightline avionics and other maintenance airmen can be found crawling over, looking under and digging through the guts of the base's 46 F-22 Raptor fighters, looking for problems and keeping them in the air.

But when it comes to the most experienced crew chiefs and flightline avionics airmen — the so-called 7-skill-level craftsmen — Langley's 1st Maintenance Group is painfully undermanned.

"Each month it gets a little bit worse," Col. Michael Morreale, commander of the 1st Maintenance Group, said in an Oct. 28 interview.

Langley's not alone. The entire Air Force is facing serious shortages of crew chiefs and flightline avionics airmen — not just the 7-level craftsmen, but also 5-level journeymen — and the undermanning is adding to the Air Force's ongoing readiness problem.

"Given the demands that we have today ... [undermanning] becomes problematic because we're asking our maintainers to do more with less," Col. Patrick Kumashiro, chief of the maintenance division for the Air Force's Logistics, Engineering and Force Protection Directorate, said in an Oct. 15 interview.

The Air Force's maintainer problem is well-known across the service, from the flightline to the halls of the Pentagon.

"We're struggling right now [with] 7-level maintainers," Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Cody said Sept. 16 at the Air Force Association's Air and Space Conference. "We need fighter maintainers. We specifically need seasoned 7-levels, crew chiefs. The problem continues to get greater and greater as we bring on more and more of our fifth-generation fighters."

The Air Force is feeling its crew chief and flightline avionics manning shortfalls most acutely in its combat forces, where it is struggling to field enough airmen to maintain fighter aircraft such as the F-16 and F-22 that are often forward deployed, as well as bombers and remotely piloted aircraft. The number of the most experienced fighter crew chiefs — 7-level craftsmen, often in the technical and master sergeant ranks — has dropped by 6.6 percent since 2012, about the time the Air Force started realizing it has a shortage, and is now at about 88 percent of the Air Force's authorized capability. Kumashiro said he starts to get worried anytime manning falls below 90 percent. The 5-level journeyman maintainers — often senior airmen and staff sergeants — are also coming up short, Kumashiro said.

At Langley, however, the problem is more painful. Morreale said the 1st Maintenance Group is supposed to have nearly 100 7-level crew chiefs, but is about 65 percent manned. As for the 7-level avionics airmen, Morreale said the 1st needs 30 of them, but only has 17, which amounts to 57 percent manning. Lose one more 7-level avionics airman — as has happened before — and Morreale is down to 53 percent manning.

It's not only the manning shortfalls stressing and stretching these career fields thin. Combat continues in Afghanistan, as do airstrikes against the Islamic State group, and the Air Force needs to keep its deployed forces in South Korea ready to fly. Some older aircraft, such as the F-16, have been flying harder and longer than the Air Force ever expected and are requiring more in-depth — and sometimes unscheduled — maintenance jobs, such as wing replacements.

The Air Force is also bringing on two new F-35 fighters every month, each of which requires 12 maintainers on the flightline, plus another eight in the back shop, for a total of 20 maintainers per new plane. The service had hoped to move over maintainers who were working on the A-10, but Congress' refusal to allow mothballing of the venerable Warthog means crew chiefs and flightline avionics airmen aren't getting freed up.

Bonuses to reenlist

These maintenance problems stem from budget cuts between 2007 and 2009, Kumashiro said, which limited how many maintainers the Air Force could bring on. That meant fewer young maintainers to grow over the last six to eight years into the journeymen and craftsmen the Air Force needs today.

The Air Force is shoring up its efforts to hold on to these experienced maintainers, Kumashiro said. The Air Force added 13 new career fields to the list of jobs eligible for selective reenlistment bonuses worth up to $90,000. Nine of those were crew chief and avionics career fields.

About 1,090 maintainers have so far accepted selective re-enlistment bonuses, Kumashiro said.

Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly, director of military force management policy, announced retention initiatives targeting critical career fields including maintainers, bringing back separated senior airmen through tech sergeants, offering high-year tenure extensions so they can stay up to two years longer, and allowing Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve airmen to move to active duty for one to three years. The Air Force also placed maintenance jobs off-limits during last year's force management programs.

"The Air Force is committed to retaining our experienced maintainers," Kumashiro said. "It's much easier to keep their experience … as opposed to trying to fix the problem with new accessions that take five to seven years. There are a number of different levers we're using to hold on to maintainers."

The Air Force is hoping to rebuild its maintenance field by increasing accessions, Kumashiro said.

"The good news is we are growing the maintenance accessions over time, so we should see a plus-up in accessions between FY15 and FY16 of about 1,500 additional maintainers" in all career fields, Kumashiro said.

Stopgap measures

The Air Force is also prioritizing its maintainers to ensure that planes that either are engaging in combat, such as in Iraq and Syria, or have the potential to fight, such as planes in South Korea, are in top shape. For example, Korean fighter units are kept 100 percent manned, Kumashiro said.

The Air Force is also using more contractors — but only on training units, since contractors aren't allowed to work on planes engaged in combat. However, using those contract maintainers on training units does free up some of the Air Force's maintainers to work on operational units.

And the Air Force is bringing in maintainers from the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve to fill some of the gaps. For example, Morreale said Langley's 1st Fighter Wing partners with the Virginia Air National Guard's 192nd Fighter Wing, and some of their maintainers help lessen the burden.

But those short-term, stopgap measures aren't always enough. Existing maintainers are having to do more work on the flightline, Kumashiro said.

"There's not a normal 40-hour workweek for our maintainers," Kumashiro said. "They are working 60-plus hours a week to ensure that we can meet the operational demands that we have."

And when the Air Force has to triage its best maintainers overseas and stopgap measures at home aren't enough, less pressing missions such as training flights start to fall by the wayside.

"When you have a significant shortage of maintainers and can't support training sorties, it does have an impact on readiness, absolutely," Kumashiro said.

Morreale said the 1st has had to improvise.

"This situation is forcing us to work smarter and do some things that, if it wasn't for this situation, we wouldn't even have considered in the past," Morreale said. "It's not easy, I'll tell you that."

For example, Morreale said, the 1st has started to use tanker aircraft to double up some training sorties. In what Langley calls "fight-tank-fight" sorties, a pilot takes a Raptor up to fly one sortie. Then, he refuels in the air and conducts another training flight, without landing and without the maintenance that necessarily follows touchdown.

"In essence, they're getting two sorties for the price of our generating one," Morreale said. "That is striking a balance that is not optimum for the pilots, because they're not debriefing each sortie independently and probably losing some of their … training takeaways from the debrief from the first sortie, because now they've [squeezed] in an extra sortie. And it doesn't spread the wealth of sorties between all the pilots that need them."

The 1st is also doing a lot of so-called hot pit refueling — a technique that is usually done in combat situations, in which a Raptor is quickly refueled on the ground without shutting down. During hot pit refueling, the 1st conducts an abbreviated inspection with the engine still running and the pilot still in the seat, and then sends him back up for a second sortie.

"The inspection criteria is less, it's abbreviated, so the workload is not as high for maintenance and we're able to do that inspection, provide him the gas that he needs, and then another quick inspection before he takes off and now he's able to conduct another sortie," Morreale said. "But again, that's not optimum."

Those kind of stopgap measures also serve to shorten the flying day, which gives the short-handed maintainers more time at the end of the day to do the inspections and repairs, he said.

But safety is always a concern, Morreale said. In July and August, the 1st Maintenance Group saw a higher break rate than expected on its F-22s. And with the 1st already undermanned, he said, it became even more difficult to handle the waves of unanticipated repairs coming their way, creating a "cascading effect." Their workload grew to the point where maintainers were working extra hours, even spilling over into weekends, which alarmed Morreale. So to make sure safety wasn't compromised, Morreale dialed back how much was being put on his maintainers' plates.

"We watch our maintenance indicators very closely to make sure that we're not biting off more than we can chew," he said. "And if we need to, we will throttle back. If it looks like things are not going our way, if the aircraft are breaking a little bit more than we anticipated, or we're not able to repair them in the time frame that we anticipated, we'll take something off the plate and we'll make some tradeoffs with ops. We have a very good working relationship, both with our ops group counterparts and the people who manage all the pilots and ensure their combat readiness."

Morreale also said the 1st overhauled its repair scheduling to work more efficiently and consolidate jobs. For example, it takes a six-man team — including a 7-level crew chief — to tow a Raptor to a maintenance hangar. That takes time.

So the 1st started grouping several different repairs, which normally would have been done at different times. Even though adding on jobs like tweaking the F-22's stealth capabilities might sideline it a little longer, it means fewer towing sessions and frees up the 7-level crew chiefs to do other jobs.

And Morreale said some 5-level crew chiefs who are highly experienced have been tasked with some of the simpler jobs that are normally done by 7-level crew chiefs, freeing those craftsmen up to do more complex jobs.

Attention to aging fleet

The advancing age of aircraft is also leading to more frequent problems like fuel leaks, Kumashiro said. Trying to troubleshoot those leaks in a wing are incredibly challenging, he said.

"That's what we've been seeing over the last three to four years," Kumashiro said. "When we look at the big picture, and we look at all of these aging aircraft, not having enough experienced maintainers, the operational commitments, the mission requirements to support Operation Inherent Resolve. Plus we're adding F-35s, KC-46, CV-22s to the inventory. It exacerbates any of the shortfalls that we have in particular career fields."

And replacing wings on F-16s — which the Air Force never thought it would have to do — is a complicated task requiring its most experienced airmen.

"You can't even begin to imagine the wiring challenges, to make sure everything is connected back right to the fuselage," Kumashiro said. "You've got our maintainers looking and trying to make sure everything marries up correctly. That is not an easy task. That was not a task that we had planned when we first started flying the F-16, for sure."

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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