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Three-person team helps bring aircraft back to life

  • Published
  • By Jamal Sutter
  • 413th Flight Test Group
Housing thousands of retired military aircraft, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base is best known for having the largest aircraft boneyard in the world, but a small team of Reserve Citizen Airmen there are responsible for reviving some of the base’s “dead” aircraft.

Lt. Col. Martin Meyer, Master Sgt. Jesus Castillo and Master Sgt. Supapon Martinez make up Operating Location-Alpha, a geographically separated unit of the 413th Flight Test Group, headquartered at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. Though few in numbers, the three-person team plays a critical role within the Air Force’s QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Target program.

After the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group’s maintainers make the F-16s flight ready once again, OL-A steps in to test the capabilities of the aircraft.

“Our job here,” said Meyer, OL-A pilot and director of flight operations, “is to generate approximately 24 F-16s a year that will, eventually, be converted by a civilian contractor to an optionally-manned package, which means they can fly with a pilot in it, just like they have for 30-plus years, or they can be flown remotely as a target.”

Once converted, the QF-16s are sent to Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, where the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron uses them for live missile testing. The program is necessary, because a missile system cannot enter full-scale production until it undergoes lethality testing. Without remotely-flown aircraft, proper testing would be difficult, making OL-A’s mission a distinct one within the force.

“The 413th already has a unique mission in that it does depot-level flight tests,” Meyer said. “But what we do here, just like the other units of the 413th, is something that’s not replicated anywhere else. Here, we’re taking F-16s that have been in long-term storage in the desert at the world-famous Boneyard for up to 12 years without having flown. The challenges of regenerating these jets are much more different than taking a combat F-16 and sending it to a depot-level maintenance [unit] after the airplane has been flying a lot.”

But those challenges are something the team has and will continue to handle, despite being such a small crew.

“We’re very lean and self-sufficient,” Meyer added. “That’s really all we need, because we have all the base support we need here at the installation from Davis-Monthan and the 309th AMARG, and then we get all the [administrative control] support we need from the 413th back at Robins.”

Castillo, the unit’s operations resource manager, tracks Meyer’s flying training, scheduling and pay, among other duties. Having an Air Force career spanning nearly 30 years, he said he’s seen it all, but admits the dynamics with the OL-A are unique.

“In a typical flying squadron, you can have up to 30, 40, 50, or even 100 crew members,” Castillo said. “We are only three, so there are times where he has to hold down the fort for me, or we all hold down the fort for each other when somebody is not in the office.”

During flights, Castillo monitors Meyer’s location, maneuvers and accomplishments in the air, and stays in constant communication with him.

“I’m pretty much his right-hand man,” said Castillo. “When he’s in the air, I’m kind of like his eyes and ears down here on the ground.”

Completing the team is Martinez, an aircrew flight equipment technician who performs maintenance, tests and repairs to flight helmets, oxygen masks, parachutes and other flight safety gear.

According to Meyer, the Air Force has been building optionally-manned systems for approximately 60 years, starting with century-series fighter aircraft in the late 50s and early 60s. But despite it not being a new concept, he wants to reinforce the fact that there is life after death for many airframes at Davis-Monthan.

“The Boneyard is not just a place where airplanes come to die,” Meyer said. “We do a lot of stuff here that involves utilizing these airplanes — everything from pulling parts off of airplanes [and getting them out to the warfighter] to generating airplanes.”