Pointy-Heads: "Yes, it's magic."

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jacob Komenda
  • 365th Training Squadron
Years ago, the first time that I went to the Military Entrance Processing Station, I was presented with a list of different career fields in the Air Force from which to choose my path. I asked the recruiter what he did and he told me he was an avionics technician on B-2 bombers. I asked him what an avionics technician was and his face contorted, as if deep in thought and frustration at the same time. Little did I know that years later when people asked me what I did, I would wear the same face.

When I tell people that my job is F-16 Avionics, they think I am either a crew chief or a pilot, not truly understanding what being an "avionics technician" really means. Sometimes it's a hard concept to articulate, but looking back I think my recruiter did a pretty good job. He told me that it was like being a doctor for the aircraft. When something goes wrong, the avionics technician's job is to diagnose what is wrong with it and treat it. He said sometimes the problem is caused by another problem, so then it is also like being a detective to fish out the answer.

A few months later I was sitting in a classroom at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, in a class now called Avionics Fundamentals. There we learned electronic theory like Ohm's Law, and how radio antennas work. We dug deeper and learned binary code and how integrated circuits work. The class started taking away the magic of how a lot of electronics work because I could take what I had learned and apply it to everyday household items like digital clocks.

From Keesler, I came to Sheppard Air Force Base to learn my craft in the very same room that I teach in today.

Here at Sheppard, I learned a great deal about the physics specific to the F-16 aircraft. We learned Bernoulli's Principle and how that helps aircraft achieve lift. We learned about aerodynamics, how radar works, how aircraft fly, and about how the aircraft senses its environment.

You see, an F-16 without avionics is a dragster. It can move forward, turn the wheel, even supply oxygen to the pilot, but it won't go up; it requires flight controls for that. Decades ago, aircraft maneuvered by cables connected to moving surfaces. Now, many aircraft are controlled electronically. Fly-by-wire flight controls enable the F-16 to pull G-forces high enough to make the pilot lose consciousness.

Avionics systems are responsible for taking a pilot's input and using that input with its surroundings to pitch, roll and yaw to a much higher degree of performance than its predecessors. The F-16 can even sense that the air around it is turbulent and adjust to smooth out the ride.

With sensors, the aircraft knows how fast it is going, how high and where it is. It can tell if there is a target beyond the visible range of the pilot using infrared, video, or radar. The aircraft goes from blindness to situationally aware through the use of the avionics systems.

What kind of systems do F-16 avionics technicians work on? It's almost easier to tell you the systems we don't work on.

Avionics is a combination of the words aviation and electronics. The best way that I can put it is that if you can think of a computer system that an aircraft would need, it is probably an Avionics system.

GPS, displays, gauges? That's right--avionics. If it navigates, communicates, radiates, designates or aviates? Avionics.

I will never forget the time when a member of a different Air Force career field and I were rebuilding a cockpit together on the flightline. He sighed as he looked at our work and said, "You really got to give it to the pilots for knowing what all these switches do."

If you've ever seen a picture of the inside of an aircraft's crew compartment, you know what I'm talking about. I smiled inwardly as I thought to myself, "Not only do I know what they do, I know how they work, I know what signals run through them."

That specifically is what sets us apart from many other specialties. It is the distinct practice of an avionics technician to be able to look at four different computers making up a system, ask a couple questions about them and decide which one is broken without touching one.

I can tell you, based off of the binary code spit out of the computer and tech data, which switch is in what position. We apply what we know based on all the principles we learn, in addition to running tests based off of those principles to make that decision.

Since our repair action primarily consists of removing and replacing computers, avionics technicians commonly hear the label "box swapper" applied to us. If you were to watch us do our work, that's exactly what it looks like. Anyone can remove and replace random boxes and hope that it works. Picking the right troubleshooting path is 99 percent of the job. That leads us to the other nickname, "Pointy-head" or "Poindexter."

The origin of the nickname "Poindexter" is the stereotypical scientist in the cartoon 'Felix the Cat'. I take pride in that last one because the implication has always been that we (avionics technicians) are the smart ones.

Not so long ago, the flightline avionics career fields were organized not only by airframe, but by system specialty; there were communications specialists, flight controls specialists, radar specialists and so on.

As the Air Force reorganized career fields, those differences were erased and we became organized by airframe only. Very recently, we reorganized again and now are differentiated by type of airframe, i.e. fighter, heavy aircraft.

I had great difficulty explaining this to a Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) avionics technician at a ROKAF base a few years ago. The differences between our worlds are staggering.

For starters, ROKAF avionics techs are officers. The ROKAF lieutenant I spoke with mentioned that his system was flight controls and asked what my system was. I said, "All of them." He looked at me as if I didn't understand his question and asked again. I repeated, "All of them," and began listing off a few of the 40-plus systems we are responsible for. As he understood where I was going his face lit up with amazement as he replied, "All of them?"

That turn of events illustrates the kaleidoscopic skill-set that avionics technicians require. A working knowledge of the supply system to properly order and turn in parts, as well as understanding the life cycle of the parts we replace, is needed. Awareness of hazardous materials, working conditions, and radiation is required to operate in one of the most dangerous environments in the Air Force.

A mastery of technical manuals is necessary to troubleshoot from system to system; from fault isolation manual to wire diagram. We provide a course based on science so that our students not only understand how things work, but why they work.

The responsibility is never taken lightly either. I've participated in many generations where we prepare aircraft for war in an exercise. I've done it for real, too. Each and every time, we go through checklists and ensure the aircraft are ready to go.

Always high on priority is whether the aircraft can tell the difference between friend and foe, electronic countermeasures and the external sensors we mount on the aircraft to provide added capability. All of these are avionics functions. Sure, we want to make sure that the bombs and missiles are loaded, but we also want to make sure that the aircraft can aim them.

During these generations we end up fixing a lot of problems that manifest during operational checkouts and inspections. Sometimes the fix is easy; a simple wire repair or tightening a connector. Maybe the aircraft needs its software updated, just as your phone requires updates for its apps. Sometimes the repair is incredibly complicated, like routing a coaxial cable from one end of the aircraft to another or troubleshooting a problem caused indirectly by a completely different system.

Those different systems do not necessarily belong to avionics either. It is very common for an avionics and electro/environmental Airman to work together to solve a problem, or for a weapons glitch to lead itself to an avionics system requiring repair. There is not a single career field that works on the flightline that I haven't worked with to solve a problem, from engines to egress.

Working on the flightline is like being a part of an orchestra. Each specialty is like a different instrument, and my career field presents a unique instrument to this orchestra.

Finally, working on the flightline is a running demonstration of Murphy's Law, so while everything seems to be going wrong, we must find a way to make it right. Most flightline maintainers are the types of people that thrive in chaos; planning, acting and reacting to such a dynamic environment.

It takes a lot of work and dedication, but being an avionics maintainer is a satisfying occupation, from the three-level turning wrenches to the seven-level dictating who works on what.