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Eglin loadcrew finds winning balance [PHOTOS]

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“Competing in and winning load competitions is the pinnacle for us loaders,” said Senior Master Sgt. Cleveland Coley, 96th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Weapons section chief.  “It means your crew is the best.  Winning these competitions creates memories and bragging rights that last your entire career.”

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — Balanced speed and accuracy rule supreme in weapons load competitions.  Push for speed and make a mistake – lose.  Focus on accuracy and take too long – lose.

For one three-person F-16 team, they’ve honed those two skills to a sharp edge and wielded them in the annual 96th Test Wing weapons load crew of the year competition here, Feb. 15.

This load crew is led by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Atstupenas, a nine-year aircraft maintenance Load Toad.  He and his crew load approximately 10 or more weapons onto aircraft during their daily shift on Eglin’s flightline.  This amount of loading provides lots of practice reps and opportunities to learn the correct loading procedures by heart.

“At this point, we know the methods and the checklists backwards and forwards,” said Atstupenas, of the list of procedures required in loading munitions.

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To be chosen for the Wing’s quarterly competition, the team already has to beat the best on the flightline.  This is judged by crew evaluations, checks and error-free weapons loads throughout the quarter.  The top two teams out of approximately 8 to 10 crews per unit are chosen to represent Blue Aircraft Maintenance (F-16) and Red Aircraft Maintenance (F-15).

eglin afb loadcrew competition

Staff Sgt. Jonathan Atstupenas, 96th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Blue, guides an AIM-120 into place onto an F-16 during the annual Team Eglin weapons load competition May 11 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. Teams from the 96th Test Wing and 33rd Fighter Wing competed to see who could load up two weapons onto their designated aircraft the quickest and with the fewest errors. The 96th TW F-16 Blue Team claimed the trophy this year. (U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)

“Competing in and winning load competitions is the pinnacle for us loaders,” said Senior Master Sgt. Cleveland Coley, 96th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Weapons section chief.  “It means your crew is the best.  Winning these competitions creates memories and bragging rights that last your entire career.”

Atstupenas and his team have been that top team often.  His team has won a quarterly load crew competition the last three years.  He finished second last year in the wing annual competition and won the Team Eglin contest.  His crew brought the Team Eglin trophy home to the 96th Test Wing for the first time since the competition began.

The Blackstone, Massachusetts native attributes his team’s success to their cohesion and passion for the work.

“There’s a comradery within the team and the unit as a whole,” said the 27-year-old.  “When we’re loading, we’re all in a rhythm.  Working at that level, we can anticipate each other’s steps and commands and really move.”

eglin air force base loadcrew competition

96th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Blue team members perform pre-load checks on an Mk-82 during the fourth quarter weapons load competition Jan. 18 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The F-16 Blue Team defeated the F-15 Eagle Red Team in a competition to load an AIM-9X and an Mk-82 the fastest and with the fewest mistakes. (U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)

The Airmen are a team, but each one has a specific set of responsibilities throughout the weapons load process.  The team chief is responsible for the weapons load checklist and ensuring all facets of the load are accomplished correctly.  The second position or the Two-Man, as it’s known, manages the tools and preparing and securing the missile launcher and the bomb rack to accept munitions.  The third Airman or Three-Man inspects the weapons for safety, serviceability, and drives the bomb lift jammer.

These positions hopefully connect like gears turning out a quick and correct weapons load.  However, inanimate gears can’t experience the mental stresses of competition Airmen face leading up to and when that stopwatch clicks go.

“I’m nervous and that adrenaline is flowing every single time,” said Atstupenas, who’s participated in at least six competitions.  “I try to tell my team to not think about the importance of the moment, the crowd, the evaluators, and focus on the task we’ve done over and over again.  That is difficult to do though.”

The event allows the crews to load in a tense, high pressure environment.  That experience carries over into daily work performance and helps create confident and adaptable loaders, according to Coley.

“(The competition) pushes everyone to strive for excellence and represent the AMU,” he said.

Atstupenas stressed reliance on each other is what carries a team through to success.  He admitted making mistakes at the recent competition his team won to qualify for the end of year award.

eglin afb loadcrew competition 2019

Staff Sgt. Jonathan Atstupenas, 96th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons load team chief, adjusts an AIM-9X missile during the 96th AMXS’s annual weapons load competition Feb. 15 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The quick paced competition tests the knowledge and proficiency of the Airmen. The winning load crew is scheduled to be announced at the Maintenance Professionals of the Year Banquet in March. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ilka Cole)

“If it wasn’t for my loading teammates watching out for each other, we wouldn’t have won,” said the team chief, who must manually inspect all aircraft and weapons components associated with the load to complete his checklist and stop the clock.

When the clocks stopped on this year’s Load crew of the Year competition, Atstupenas and his crew of Senior Airmen Joseph Soto and Jacob May finished with the fastest time of the four competitors.  Now, the evaluators will determine whether his team mastered both speed and accuracy enough to claim this year’s top prize.

They will find out March 29, at their annual awards ceremony.

Story by Samuel King Jr., Team Eglin Public Affairs

PHOTO (ABOVE): Staff Sgt. Jonathan Atstupenas, 96th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons load team chief, secures an AIM-9X missile as Staff Sgt. Kyndle Lee, 96th AMXS weapons standardization, evaluates the load during the 96th AMXS’s annual weapons load competition Feb. 15 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The quick paced competition tests the knowledge and proficiency of the Airmen. The winning load crew is scheduled to be announced at the Maintenance Professionals of the Year Banquet in March. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ilka Cole)

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