TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --
Across Tinker Air Force Base, Airmen have been adapting their regular routines to ensure mission-critical operations continue with minimum disruption in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
For the Air Force Flight Standards Agency’s Remote Maintenance Center, an organization that already performs a unique mission-critical role during their normal operations, this has meant adapting operations in a way that has made an already complex job more complicated.
“The hardest part is that while 85% of AFFSA can continue their work from home, we in the RMC are different because we have systems that we have to dial in to remotely all across the world and we can’t do that from home in a teleworking environment,” said Section Lead Master Sgt. Johnny Kiefer. “We have no option but to have personnel come in to work when the controllers or the local work center techs have issues on the systems.”
The RMC provides 24/7 support to more than 400 navigational aids across 86 bases and 10 major commands around the world. This critical task is performed by less than 50 Airmen operating at stations in Kapaun Air Station in Germany, Yokota Air Base in Japan and Tinker.
According to AFFSA Commander Col. David Woodley, this task usually requires extensive travel to address outages wherever they may be. With the travel restrictions enacted in response to COVID-19, this has meant the RMC has had to conduct the majority of their work via telecommunications.
“When COVID-19 started hitting and we saw the writing on the wall, we developed action points to address what would happen if we couldn’t travel and what we could do to work with MAJCOMS,” Woodley said. “We’ve become very creative to address those outages because the planes keep flying and the mission doesn’t stop. It’s taken a team effort, not just with AFFSA but with the MAJCOMS and the bases to make sure these systems do not fail during this time.”
These creative workarounds for providing navaids the technical support they need while protecting Airmen from exposure to COVID-19 is something Kiefer said has been far from easy, necessitating extensive cooperation with the various MAJCOMS and squadrons at each of the bases.
To promote social distancing, Kiefer said the RMC has gone to teams of two Airmen per shift, with a third Airman on standby if the situation requires it. While a functional solution, Kiefer said the setup produces an incredible amount of pressure on the teams involved who may need to navigate multiple calls on issues, often needing to guide the bases through the fixes while being unable to travel.
Additionally, Kiefer said that the RMC still has to provide support for the Federal Aviation Administration’s regular flight inspections, as well as decide which of AFFSA’s regularly scheduled preventive maintenance inspections can be postponed or still need to be carried out.
“We’ve been trying to figure out ways we can sustain operations without having to actually physically be boots on the ground during this time,” Kiefer said. “We want to keep our people here safe and emergency restorals that do get approved we handle on a case-by-case basis based on the base’s mission.”
Even with shifting the majority of their work to distance support, Woodley said there have still been instances that have necessitated travel due to the importance of the mission. Since travel restrictions began in March, support teams have still needed to be dispatched to bases including Dover AFB, Delaware; Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota; Randolph AFB, Texas; and Kunsan Air Base, South Korea.
“We’ve had to have a lot of discussions about what we recognize needs to be fixed but we are allowing to wait to be fixed to ensure our Airmen are safe,” Woodley said. “We’re balancing risk of the person getting sick to the risk of mission to the risk of equipment, and it’s a major balancing act.”
Woodley said while the balancing act isn’t perfect, the teams have gotten it down to a science and that it has developed so that the RMC can still complete the mission, no damage is done to the equipment and the personnel remain safe.
“The whole Air Force is doing this, trying to figure out how to get the mission done while keeping our Airmen and their families safe,” Woodley said. “And it is exactly the same with AFFSA: while it is unique being in Oklahoma and trying to do this global mission, we’re doing what we can to maintain that balance.”