ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --
As COVID-19 cases increased across the country, the demand for essential items grew, making it difficult for some to find certain personal protective equipment.
Recognizing the need to continue the mission while protecting themselves and others, aircrew flight equipment Airmen from two of the 413th Flight Test Group’s geographically separated units produced cloth face covers for their squadron members and local communities.
“Right now, we’re kind of living through a historic event,” said Senior Master Sgt. Ryne Miller, 10th Flight Test Squadron AFE flight chief at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. “It’s unprecedented, and … I feel grateful to be able to contribute. It may be on a small scale, but for each of our aircrew, their home life … that’s what we take into consideration. Their lives are our lives, just as much as our [own] lives at home.”
Miller is responsible for the production of approximately 150 face covers over the span of a few weeks. Looking around his AFE shop one morning, he saw extra duffle and helmet bags and thought they would make great materials for face covers. After watching a do-it-yourself video, Miller said he cut and used the fabric to make his first variation of face covers.
Nearly 1,200 miles away in Utah, another AFE Airman also put together his own covers.
Because of family health concerns due to the coronavirus, Tech. Sgt. Aaron McKeage, 514th Flight Test Squadron AFE technician at Hill Air Force Base, was encouraged to stay home and tend to family matters. Though not able to perform the daily activities of an AFE professional, he still wanted to contribute, because of what he called his “obligation as an Airman.”
With materials purchased by his squadron’s government purchase card holder, McKeage visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website for suggested face cover designs and began production.
“When somebody’s in need and you have the ability to perform a task … it obviously makes you feel good,” McKeage said. “I was just trying to use the abilities I’ve learned from the Air Force and just turn it out while I’ve got a considerable amount of time on my hands.”
Both the 10th and 514th FLTSs have missions that involve delivering flight-worthy aircraft back to their units after depot maintenance. These receiving units are typically out of state at other bases, making travel a necessity.
“With many units concerned about exposing their combat aircrew due to temporary duty travel, our ability to pick up and drop off aircraft also enables their missions by decreasing their exposure,” said Lt. Col. Nathan Litz, 514th FLTS commander. “Masks for our aircrew are a critical part of this, as they are a significant mitigating measure as our aircrew travel across the continental United States, on both military and commercial flights, and interact with mission essential personnel at various bases.”
Face cover requests from both Reserve Citizen Airmen extended beyond their squadrons and bases. After providing a cover to his wife, Naomi, who happens to be a nurse, Miller’s neighbors, who are also nurses, wanted some as well.
"I think they are a great way to contribute to the health and safety of the crew members while utilizing materials you have on hand, to reduce the cost and burden on health care personnel and facilities," said Naomi Miller.
Nurses in Tinker-neighboring cities received face covers from their work centers, but many of them wore the same covers for weeks at a time and needed a resupply.
“These nurses—they are on the front lines,” Ryne Miller said. “I feel like they’re in more danger than us, so I absolutely wanted to help them out.”
On McKeage’s end, he said through social media and word-of-mouth, he got requests from numerous people outside of base. To help fit the needs of as many people as possibly, he began making customizable covers with form-fitting wires in the nose area and pockets to add filters.
Neither McKeage or Miller could have accomplished their feats alone. McKeage had the help of his wife, who ironed out and prepared materials while he sewed. And Miller’s AFE colleagues stepped up to continue their weekly gear inspections, while he was able to focus on making covers, even during minimal manning. Some helped him put together covers as well.
“Innovation like this from the 10th FLTS AFE shop is the cornerstone of flight test,” said Lt. Col. James Couch, 10th FLTS commander. “Senior Master Sgt. Miller and his team presented this well-thought-out process without any prompting. We foster an atmosphere of problem solving and will overcome any obstacle with teamwork.”
According to the CDC, cloth face covers are fundamental items that can help prevent spread of the coronavirus.
On April 6, the U.S. Air Force released guidance regarding the use of cloth face covers, stating that all individuals on Air Force property are required to wear face coverings when they cannot maintain six feet of physical distance in public areas or work centers. By this time, both Airmen already began production of the life-saving tool.
“I’m appreciative of the fact we were able to see the coming signs of mandatory masks to be worn around base and have the opportunity to provide our entire unit plus others with a form of security,” Miller said. “It feels very justifiable to be able to provide a needed service to those who you signed up to serve and protect.”