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KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- Staff Sgt. Ehren Wahl repairs an MC-130 infrared receiver during an inspection here. The 353rd Maintenance Squadron Airmen provide maintenance for all MC-130 Combat Talons and Combat Shadows assigned to the 353rd Special Operations Group. Sergeant Wahl is a communications navigation mission systems technician. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Val Gempis)

Photo by Master Sgt. Val Gempis

Special ops maintainers team up on Kadena's tiny troubles

21 Sep 2004 | Master Sgt. Michael Farris

Ehren Wahl and Wesley Brown are both staff sergeants, they are assigned to the 353rd Maintenance Squadron, and they each have spent most of their careers here on Okinawa, a tiny island in southern Japan. That is where the similarities end.

Sergeant Wahl is an outspoken, 24-year-old from New York who prefers baggy pants and sneakers. Sergeant Brown, a 25-year-old West Coast type, is decidedly blue jeans and cowboy boots.

Oddly, it is their differences rather than their similarities that allow them to work together in sorting out bugs in some of the Air Force’s most complex communications and navigation equipment.

They are back shop specialists who turn broken parts into the eyes and ears of Kadena’s Combat Talon and Combat Shadow fleet, highly modified MC-130s assigned to the 353rd Special Operations Group.

“When an infrared receiver comes in, Ehren typically examines ... the problem,” Sergeant Brown said. “I tend to start at the opposite end of the mechanical chain and examine the processes leading up to the problem.”

Together, the technician tandem tackles the problem much faster than they would if they worked independently. It also helps that they are fast friends.

The communications navigation mission systems section Airmen maintain more than $10 million of support equipment used to turn night into day and allow the crews to see their way through darkness and foul weather.

“Without all this equipment, those high-tech chariots of war are just (airplanes),” said Master Sgt. Thad LaTour. “The job can be technically challenging, and troubleshooting tends to eat up the hours.”

Sergeant LaTour’s seven Airmen work in the back shops while other communication navigation Airmen work on airplanes, removing and installing the “eyes and ears.”

“We all carry the same Air Force specialty code, just different flavors,” Sergeant LaTour said.

Working on the 100-pound, beach ball-sized infrared receivers can be intimidating at first, Sergeant Brown said.

“The (effect) of a mistake can be huge,” he said. “And the work can be tedious at times. Occasionally, we tweak electronic components with tolerances as slight as plus or minus .001 millivolts. We have to be very careful.”

Working out a stubborn bug or tracking down a defiant short rarely ruffles the feathers of these professionals. But a bird of a different feather once threw them a curve.

“About a year ago, one of the planes had a bird strike,” Sergeant Wahl said. “The bird smashed right through the (infrared receiver) window and pretty much disintegrated. We had to clean out all the shattered shards of glass and completely realign the unit.”

Troubleshooting the highly complex radars and communications equipment can be challenging for the Airmen, but that is only part of the burden. They also maintain test benches used to fine tune and troubleshoot the sensors.

“It’s often more difficult to get parts for the test equipment than it is for the components themselves,” Sergeant Brown said.

The effect these experts have on the readiness of the group’s low-density, high-demand armada cannot be overstated, officials said. Their equipment and their expertise allow the planes to fly anytime, anywhere.
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