The Best Kept Secret in RAF INsight Magazine

The Best Kept Secret in the Air Force…

What is an Airborne Technician (AT) and how do I become one? This was the question I asked myself back in 2011 when I found myself working for a Chief Technician with a brevet I had never seen before.

His reply: “The best kept secret in the Air Force – a group of ground technicians selected to maintain the Sentry in flight.” With my head filled with romantic ideas of frantically fixing components as the aircraft plummeted to earth, only for me to fix it at the last possible second as it pulled up to safety, I set off to further research the role.

The reality of the job was far less dangerous but easily as important as the one I had imagined. The complexity of the mission systems onboard the E-3D Sentry requires AT to be divided into three specialisations: the Communications Technician, responsible for looking after the aircraft’s suite of radios and data-links; the Displays Technician, responsible for maintaining the main mission computer and the workstations used by the mission crew; and the Radar Technician, responsible for the Mission Radar and Identify Friend or Foe (IFF) systems. As if that was not responsibility enough, they also form the core of the aircraft fire-fighting team, acting as the three primary fire-fighters, supplemented by other members of the crew.

The role of the AT is unique among ground trades, not just for allowing the opportunity to fly, but also for working entirely without supervision rather than by exception. Only one of each discipline is present on a normal flight, and their roles have very little or no crossover. This effectively makes them the sole person on each mission capable of operating the systems – a lot of pressure under the circumstances. This is why it was decided that a minimum rank of Sergeant would be required for selection as an AT.

During planning of a typical mission, the ATs ensure that all system software is reserved and suitable, and check the aircraft log books to ensure that the aircraft is capable of meeting the requirements of a given mission. Then, on the day of a flight, they, along with the Flight Engineer, prepare the aircraft for flight and begin the initialisation of the mission systems. After take-off there is a quick internal check (partly to make sure all of the aircraft is still there!), followed by power-up and configuration of the mission systems, which enable the rest of the mission crew to undertake their tasks. After that, it falls to the ATs to undertake system health testing and rectify any failures that occur; if not recoverable, they need to be able to state that the system is down. This is another highly pressurised scenario, as it may mean the end of a mission and cause the need to dump  thousands of pounds of aviation fuel. Should it  be your lucky day and all the systems are working correctly, it is then up to you to see what you can do to help the rest of the crew. This may include anything from making a cup of tea, to backing up the Aerospace Battle Managers on the radio. It is strongly encouraged that everyone on board has an appreciation of what each crew member does.

Finally comes arguably their most crucial role – debriefing to the aircraft ground trades. There are many difficulties faced by the engineers on 8 Squadron, not least of which is their inability to run the radar on the ground at will. ATs attempt to overcome this by logging failures and carrying out the first steps of fault diagnosis whilst in-flight, thus saving many man hours.

The sound of all of this appealed greatly to me; I have always enjoyed working under pressure! However, what I did not realise was that probably the biggest challenge was becoming an AT in the first place. It is one of the most exclusive trades in the Royal Air Force with only around thirty active at any one time and less than three hundred in service history. Selection is by interview with a board of your peers who decide which candidates are suitable and which discipline would be the best fit. The board need to be confident that candidates not only have the technical knowledge and capacity to learn, but also that they could contribute to a crew on operational missions. Successful applicants then have to go through a full medical board to be certified fit to fly, before undertaking pre-employment training at RAF Cranwell.

This course encompasses aircrew ‘Survive, Evade, Resist and Extract’ training, meteorological training, aircraft radio procedures, basic aircraft navigation, and an aircraft systems overview. Personally I found the survival training to be an enlightening experience, not just in learning the techniques and theory behind survival, but also for what you discover about your personal limits and determination. The two-week course covers survival  at sea and ditching drills, as well as survival in a non-hostile land environment. This culminates in a week-long exercise in which the trainees survive a week in the outdoors using only rudimentary equipment. Before this, if someone had suggested I would look forward to eating a squirrel I would have laughed in their face! The rest of the time at Cranwell is spent learning to understand the bigger picture of aviation. The central idea is that we have to appreciate the “crew mentality” and understand how each of our roles comes together to deliver the mission objectives. The course expands your mental capacity, and also makes you into a more rounded airman (so do in-flight rations!), as you will have to consider all factors that affect a flight, both on the ground and in the air.

The course that takes place at the Aviation Medicine Training Wing at RAF Henlow is another eye-opener. All aircrew have to be exposed once to the effects of an aircraft decompression so that they may be able to recognise the symptoms in themselves should it ever happen for real. To do this you are put into a decompression chamber on oxygen then rapidly decompressed to 25,000ft. This has all manner of strange (and amusing) consequences. Firstly, it causes a cloud inside the chamber and then all of the gasses in your body expand; thankfully you are all still on oxygen at this point! You then de-mask in pairs so that you are exposed to the oxygen-depleted atmosphere and attempt to carry out a simple reasoning exam and write down what symptoms you experience. I am ultra-competitive when it comes to exams and wanted to answer correctly – difficult  when your brain is starved of oxygen. The doctor asked me to attempt the questions overleaf, but I could not figure how to turn the paper over! Then I just grinned inanely at him when he told me to put my mask back on. This sounds funny (and was for everyone watching), but the scary thing was that if that were to happen for real I would have asphyxiated, as I had no idea what I was doing.

The role-specific training for all ATs takes place on 54(R) Squadron at RAF Waddington. It’s a great experience as you train as part of a whole crew; this offers the rare opportunity to learn from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, which is one of the joys of working on the Sentry. The course itself is quite challenging; the nature of it, coupled with the small numbers of ATs, dictates that it’s entirely one-on-one tuition with an instructor who has been an AT for some time. Each discipline is given approximately sixteen weeks to learn all of the necessary technical knowledge – no mean feat given the complexity and amount of different systems for which each technician is responsible! The students sit weekly exams, culminating in a final knowledge exam, and a safety exam which has a 100% pass mark.

If you have passed all of the component parts up to this point, then the flying phase begins. This is your first chance to do the job for real, and you have already been in training for around six months! The ATs have four flights with a minimal crew to allow them to become familiar with their role and equipment, before they have the pressure of people requiring the systems to use on a mission. The crew then undertake up to ten missions, together with the instructors, with each one getting progressively more difficult. The structure is designed in such a way that by the end of the missions you will have either seen or discussed all of the common (and some
not so common) faults that occur within your equipment, so that you can be let loose on your own, armed for 99% of eventualities.

Each course tends to culminate in a practice deployment so that the students apply their skills without the comfort blanket of operating from familiar surroundings and in familiar airspace. Our course, however, attended a real exercise in Penang, Malaysia. Unfortunately for us it was decided we’d get there by routing west, so we didn’t arrive until we had stopped in Alaska, Hawaii and Guam… If that wasn’t bad enough, on the way home we stopped in Diego Garcia – no doubt the worst idyllic paradise in the Indian Ocean I have ever visited!

With the course eventually passed, and having very proudly received my brevet in a ceremony held at Waddington with family and friends in attendance, I arrived on 8 Squadron. Naively, I believed that this was job done, but the reality is that the learning now started in earnest. Each crew member is given six months to achieve combatready status; it is at this stage that you broaden your horizons to encompass the roles of the rest of the crew, thereby making yourself more versatile. You also need to become comfortable operating without the safety net of someone stood behind you, and with the pressure of keeping the equipment capable of delivering mission objectives. I now write this having achieved combatready status, and the truth is that the learning never stops. The systems are so large and complex that no one person can know it all; as a collective within our respective specialisations we form a hive mind that together has the required expertise to keep this world-class capability running, hopefully for many years to come.

If you have read this and, like me, think that this sounds like the job for you then the good news is that the trade is growing. The (relatively) new RC135 Rivet Joint also has Airborne Technicians on board, and it is likely that any future platforms undertaking similar roles will also require in-flight care provided by dedicated engineers.