Eyes On: Parachutes Get Close Attention From Flight Equipment Airmen

  • Published
  • By By Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
A couple of words keep being repeated as two Michigan Air National Guard Airmen work around a parachute table in a long, narrow back room of the new fighter squadron building at Selfridge Air National Guard Base: every, eyes and detail .

They show up in phrases like "every detail must be perfect," "two sets of eyes on everything," and "we put eyes on every detail."

Parachutes represent the last line of defense if everything else on an aircraft has gone wrong.

"It is the very last thing that can save a pilot's life," said Master Sgt. Ed Stone, an aircrew flight equipment specialist with the 127th Operations Support Flight, which supports the A-10 Thunderbolt II at Selfridge. "Every piece of the parachute has to function properly. That's why you need multiple eyes looking at it."

As he says that, Stone finishes putting a stitch in a piece of parachute cord on the 40-foot long table and somewhat dramatically throws an excess piece of cord on the floor.

"If I throw it on the floor, I know it is not on the table, where it can get caught up in my parachute," Stone said.

This is the ACES (advanced concept ejection seat) II C-9 Canopy parachute. As the name implies, it works in conjunction with the ACES II seat, which is used on all high-performance Air Force fighter aircraft, including the A-10s stationed at Selfridge. The main C-9 parachute is actually part of a series of 4 parachutes which could deploy in a bail-out situation. The ACES II seat is equipped with several pitot tubes which, when the ejection process is initiated, determine the air speed and altitude of the aircraft and determine which of three modes to operate in, known simply as Modes 1, 2 and 3.

A small parachute, known as the drogue chute, deploys first, launched by a very small explosive charge. The drogue chute then pulls out the main parachute. Drogue and main chutes exist for both the pilot and the ejection seat itself. How long the pilot remains attached to the seat after ejection and the time between each parachute deploying depends on the mode the system is operating in, due to speed and altitude.

No matter the mode, everything happens very quickly in the ejection process. Depending on the mode, the main C-9 canopy, which opens to a 28-foot diameter, is fully deployed somewhere between 2.5 and 4 seconds after the pilot first pulls the ejection handles.

While Stone and the other dozen or so Citizen-Airmen assigned to the aircrew flight equipment shop take care of the parachutes, maintaining the seat and the related explosive charges which rocket it out of a disabled aircraft is the responsibility of group of Airmen in the 127th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. In addition to working on parachutes, the aircrew flight equipment Airmen are responsible for maintaining pilot helmets, oxygen masks, providing rescue gear and the training to use that gear. Essentially, flight equipment Airmen ensure the pilot has all he or she needs to be ready to fly a mission and return.

The parachute on the table today is among the first being inspected and packed since the unit celebrated a ribbon-cutting ceremony in late February on their new "Ops" Building, a $6.6 million reconstructed building at Selfridge. Every parachute must be opened, inspected and repaired, as needed, on an annual basis. Various parts of the parachute assembly have different shelf lives and any parts that need replacement are exchanged during the inspection process. The main canopy has a shelf life of 13 years.

The nylon parachute has a multi-colored canopy, white, green, tan and day-glo orange. The idea is that a downed pilot could use the appropriate color to help camouflage him or herself in a snowy or other environment in a hostile area, or use the orange to help signal rescuers in a friendly area.

Typically, the parachute-packing process involves one Airman doing the initial inspection and swapping out of any needed parts and a second Airman who performs a series of IPIs, or in-process inspections, as the work is being done. On this day, Stone is being assisted by Master Sgt. Kathy Smith, who is relatively new to parachute packing. Technical Sgt. Glenn Hardy is performing the IPIs, which involves him inspecting the parachute and the work performed by Stone and Smith about a half-dozen times at key junctures in the process.

"We help the pilots be at ease when they are up in the cockpit, performing their mission," Smith said. "We take pride in our work and we don't want the pilots to have to think even for a minute about their parachute - unless they need it.

"Hopefully, they never need it, but the reality is, they might," she said. "That's why we pack every parachute we do like it is the most important one we'll ever do, because a life may depend on it."

The 127th OSF is a component of the 127th Wing. Comprised of approximately 1,600 personnel and flying both the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the KC-135 Stratotanker, the 127th Wing supports Air Mobility Command, Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operations Command by providing highly-skilled Airmen to missions domestically and overseas. The 127th Wing is the host unit at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which is also home to units of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection.