The World Health Organization declared a public health emergency of international concern for the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), Jan. 3. Since then, Air Force bases have been responding to the crisis, eventually going to mission essential personnel to maintain the safety of their Airmen while also continuing to provide worldwide support.
At Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the 62nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron (AMXS) and 62nd Maintenance Squadron (MXS), play a vital role in ensuring aircraft can still operate out of McChord Field.
“COVID-19 has put an interested spin on mission essential for us,” said Capt. Naomi Ballard, assigned to the 446th AMXS, but is currently on orders as the 62nd AMXS maintenance operations officer.
“Everyone has had to maintain a high degree of flexibility and they have been doing awesome. They have been super responsive and willing to go that extra mile to keep the planes in the air that need to be there, and we can still respond in the case of higher headquarter tasking.”
The maintenance squadrons have taken a number of steps to ensure the safety of their Airmen as they continue to maintain and launch aircraft. They ensured every Airmen has a cloth mask and other personal protective equipment such as gloves and that they are washing their hands frequently. In common areas such as breakrooms, Airmen are encouraged to maintain six feet of social distancing. They also sanitize all aircraft that pick up passengers and are ready and able to respond should they run into a situation where an aircraft comes back with COVID-19 positive patients on it.
“We are continuously preaching to these guys that the most responsible person for their own safety is themselves,” Ballard said. “We have given them the training and resources we feel they needed going into this situation to prepare them for that. Each person adds to it by making sure they are being responsible stewards of what we have given them.”
Aircraft maintenance can sometimes make it difficult to practice social distancing, which makes the use of masks and proper hygiene all the more important.
“It’s challenging still doing maintenance work during COVID-19,” said Staff Sgt. Christopher Bowen, 62nd MXS hydraulics specialist. “We are taking a lot more precautions and trying not to keep people crowded, but some of the places we work in, there’s four people on the flight deck. We try to stay as far away from each other as we can. The masks do help, they make us feel safer.”
On a normal day, the maintenance squadrons would generate anywhere between eight to 14 aircraft. Because of COVID-19 and minimal manning, they have cut down to less than 20 percent of their normal manning and are generating at the most four aircraft per day. This has allowed the squadrons to focus on caring for their people first, but also maintain the more critical elements of their flying mission.
Col. Erin Staine-Pyne, 62nd Airlift Wing commander, declared that during April 10-17, the entire base would shut down as much possible, as that time was projected to be the peak of the pandemic. While many other career fields could send their people home, the maintenance squadrons were not one of them.
“It’s become very clear to our personnel that when we say maintenance is mission essential, we mean it,” Ballard said. “We still have an incredibly critical role to play, and not just in base operations; we are the ones driving the cogs of the military enterprise worldwide right now.”
The 62nd AMXS and 62nd MXS Airmen have proven to be resilient and capable of taking care of broken aircraft and sending crews out on missions despite a global pandemic.
“Our guys have just been incredible in their response to COVID-19,” Ballard said. “The fact that we can keep this mission going for the wing, the base, and the Air Force is 100 percent because they are doing what we need them to every minute of every day.”