CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
As I stepped into the enormous hangar with my camera bag slung over my shoulder, I spotted the team I had heard so much about; the team I was specifically there to meet. The trio, led by Tech. Sgt. Christopher Shamburger, greeted me near an MQ-9 Reaper that was tucked between one of the walls of the 27th Special Operations Maintenance Squadron’s hangar and an AC-130W Stinger II gunship.
I started to assemble my camera gear when another member of the group, Airman 1st Class Deion Giron, handed me a pair of heavy-duty earmuffs. Soon after putting them on, I immediately benefitted from their bulky design. They blocked out the booming sound of the jammer firing up, a specialized vehicle with the sole purpose of moving munitions with ease. At the helm of the rig was Airman Alissa Bien, the final member of the group.
The team’s specialty – accurately arming MQ-9s with lethality.
As I photographed their process, it was evident they were a well-oiled machine. Each of them used hand signals to communicate with one another, like a quarterback indicating an audible over a deafening crowd. Everyone knew the play. Everyone executed their job.
I guess that’s how you earn this shop’s “Hot Shot Load Crew of the Month” four times in a row.
“Hot Shot Load Crew of the Month is our way of acknowledging the top load crew,” Shamburger said. “It is the team that has no discrepancies, or close to no discrepancies, with the fastest time. Teams can have the fastest time with one discrepancy but lose to a team with the second fastest time and no errors.”
Speed and accuracy are incredibly important in the world of weapons loading. In real-life scenarios, aircraft will land and need munitions attached as soon as possible so they can take off and get back to the fight.
“Our job satisfaction comes from us seeing that the bombs didn’t come back on the aircraft,” Shamburger said. “Then we know we have done our job and have done it right.”
That’s why the weapons shop performs these Monthly Required Proficiency Loads or MRPLs. Crew members get a chance to hone their skills, while it also creates an environment perfect for trash talk. However, more than just bragging rights are on the line each month.
“These practice loads are more than just a friendly competition,” Shamburger explained. “They directly act as our job evaluations to make sure we stay proficient and keep our certifications. Without our certifications, we aren’t allowed to do our job, which results in the mission not getting done.”
All three members have certified positions and rely on one another to keep them current. It goes without saying that there is a high level of trust for the three crew members that arrived at Cannon no more than six months ago.
“We all arrived here in April 2018,” Bien said. “In a short amount of time, we have gotten to the point where we can read each other really well. I think that is a big part of our success, having that continuity with our crew.”
As the jammer driver or ‘three-man,’ Bien also showcased her talents by winning the ‘Jammer Jamboree,’ a driving contest between anyone in the shop who wanted to compete.
Competitors navigated a course, both forwards and backwards, that included sharp turns around cones and a water balloon target that needed to be hit with precision. Each infraction adds seconds to the drivers’ overall time. Bien didn’t have a single infraction.
Aiding her was Airman 1st Class Deion Giron, or the ‘two-man.’ His job was to inspect and prepare the aircraft while also conduct functional checks that could be required prior to the load. It’s essential for the load to happen.
“Everyone kind of has their own style of loading so it takes a lot of time and practice to get to this point of knowing your teammates so well,” Giron said. “When we make mistakes, we all learn from them and try not to make that same mistake again.”
According to the results, mistakes rarely happen with this group and it might have to do with the last position of the ‘one-man’ held by Shamburger. This is a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ type position, ensuring the other members complete their jobs, technical data is accurately logged and ultimately oversees everything is ready for combat.
“These younger Airmen have definitely impressed me,” Shamburger said. “Six months is a short time to learn to trust someone, especially when that trust is about handling potentially fatal munitions. But that’s what we’ve accomplished as a team. We’ve learned to trust each other and believe that everyone is doing their job correctly every single time.”
That’s high praise from a seven-year team chief who has seen his fair share of new Airmen and aircraft.
Cannon is one of, if not the only base in the Air Force that requires weapons load crew members to also be responsible for routine maintenance on additional aircraft other than the ones they load. Shamburger, Giron and Bien maintain two other aircraft, the CV-22 Osprey and the AC-130W.
“Before I arrived here, I had worked on three separate aircraft, all fighter models, over three different bases,” Shamburger explained. “Now, I’m adding three more airframes I’ve never even seen before and it is all at one single location. This is a whole new world and one of the only consolidated weapons flights I’ve heard of. We have brought together a flight line weapons flight and a back shop in the same place.”
This means that not everyone in the shop will be certified on all three aircraft, but everyone will have knowledge on all three aircraft to the extent of being able to provide maintenance if needed.
“I really wanted to work on CV-22’s, so when I heard we would be doing that as well, I was really excited,” Bien said.
Their excitement and enthusiasm for their job spilled over to me. After taking photos and hearing their story, it made me realize an important truth about successful teams.
When a group of individuals obtain success together, the reasons for their achievements can vary greatly. Maybe the environment favored their strengths, creating a slight edge for them. The competition wasn’t as strong as it usually was. It was just their lucky day.
However, when a team sustains success over an extended period of time, the reasons start to go beyond external factors and start to reflect the character of the group. It happens when the entire team understands its common goal, communicates effectively and relies on the trust everyone has built with one another.
Those required components for continued success are evident in one weapons load crew here at Cannon.