The Inspection team you've never heard of
By Senior Airman Mark Hybers, 507th Air Refueling Wing public affairs
/ Published April 25, 2013
TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- The 1st Aviation Standards Flight is a small team of reservists performing critical inspections to ensure aircraft take off and land safely, not only at Tinker Air Force Base, but locations all over the globe.
The 24-member flight, located at the Federal Aviation Administration center at Will Rogers World Airport is a little known part of the 507th Air Refueling Wing. This unique flight augments the FAA's flight inspection mission and works hand in hand with their active duty counterparts, 375th Air wing Detachment 1.
This small team of inspectors spends a great deal of time flying in either the Bombardier Challenger aircraft running inspections on everything from takeoff and landing systems to flight routes as well as low level routes.
Missions are typically flown every other week. Planning for these inspections involves a great deal of preparation.
"A four or five day trip typically has two full days of planning," said Senior Master Sgt. Brian Davie, 1st ASF mission specialist superintendent. "Then there is a couple days of post trip reporting. So the whole process for one inspection can take quite a bit of our time."
While the normal two week planning, performing and post reporting takes place, this team also prepares to assist the FAA with their annual inspection at McMurdo Station, a U.S. Antarctic research center located on the southern tip of Ross Island.
Inspections in Antarctica take place at the beginning of the summer season, which is normally in October or early November. The team members from 1st ASF are the only military personnel in the world qualified to inspect McMurdo Station.
"One of the reasons we have unit members participate in this mission every year is because they utilize a microwave landing system there which is seen very rarely," said 1st ASF Commander, Lt. Col. Dustin Welsh. "There are still some military installations and forward operating locations that use this same system, so it's good training for us."
The lack of qualified inspectors isn't the only challenge when it comes to the yearly McMurdo mission. The environment creates many problems.
"Operations are conducted in extremely cold temperatures, and in an area where weather patterns are constantly changing," said Maj. Brett VanMeter, 1st ASF standards team. "Due to these extreme conditions, the aircraft is operated 24 hour-a-day, stopping only for fuel and a change of crew."
Ensuring navigation aids are performing correctly is crucial in an environment where storms, often referred to by the locals as "herbies," could last for days.
"These storms take visibility down to zero," said VanMeter. "Even vehicle operations are conducted by driving flag to flag."
VanMeter said when a "herbie" is too strong, flight operations cease altogether, however, maintenance crews are required to stay with the aircraft and periodically start the engines to keep them warm so that all aircraft and electronic systems operate normally.
An operation conducted in an environment where there is no discernible horizon is called a 'flat light.' VanMeter said this type of flying makes it hard for pilots to visually determine how high they are above the ground.
"When we fly in an environment like that, a third pilot is normally aboard as a safety pilot to help monitor the radar altimeter and provide another set of eyes for safe operations," he said.
Several runways at McMurdo Station are inspected each year. There is an ice runway that aircraft like the Challengers used by 1st ASF fly. There are also two ski runways and one emergency ski runway that are used during the summer months by ski-equipped C-130s for primary air support.
To further solidify the need for these annual inspections and ensure all systems are working properly, the location at Antarctica has a magnetic variation that is approximately 167 degrees VanMeter said.
"That means when pilots look at their flight instruments on approach, the normal system shows the airfield is behind the aircraft," he added. "That means the pilot has to mentally turn the plane around in their head in order to approach."
All of those variables, plus the constant slow movement of the ice pack on which the runway is, increase the need for yearly inspections.
The unit also deploys on a regular basis to overseas combat zones performing inspections on mobile ground systems ensuring NATO aircraft are getting in and out of theater safely.
"The reason the Air Force is a component of the FAA's flight inspection mission is because the FAA does not direct civilians into combat zones," said Welsh. "The 1st ASF's partnership with the FAA flight inspection team in day to day operations and on special missions like Antarctica, affords us the training and experience to successfully execute our combat mission."