Maintainers keep jets, alliances ready at Castle Forge

  • Published
  • By Capt. Andrew Layton
  • U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Public Affairs

Since Oct. 6, F-15E Strike Eagles from the 336th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Wing, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, have been thundering over the Black Sea region alongside allies from the Bulgarian, Greek, and Romanian air forces. This multinational operation, Castle Forge, is all about agile execution and the ability of NATO allies to generate air power anytime, anywhere.

For every Strike Eagle protecting the skies of Eastern Europe, a team of dozens remains on the ground to ensure the jets are safe, mechanically sound, and ready for when the aircrews complete their pre-flight briefings.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Gavin Hardwick, a crew chief for the 336th FS, is one of the dedicated technicians putting in long hours every day to make Castle Forge happen. Since Oct. 18, he has supported the first of Castle Forge’s forward dispersal phases at 86th Air Base Borcea, Romania. Before that, he worked on the Strike Eagles during their integration with the Hellenic Air Force at Larissa Air Base, Greece.

“As a crew chief, my mission is to make sure we get the jets in the air as quickly and efficiently as possible,” says Hardwick. “It doesn’t really matter what type of mission they’re flying that day; what matters to us as crew chiefs is making sure the jets are always ready.”

Places like 86th AB Borcea offer plenty of opportunities for building relationships across cultures and language barriers. Just a short distance from where Hardwick and his fellow F-15 maintainers turn their wrenches, Romanian aircraft engineers and mechanics service their own F-16 Fighting Falcons from the Romanian Air Force’s 53rd Fighter Squadron.

“I’ve been able to give the Romanians tours of our jets, talk to them here and there and learn how they work on their jets, which is pretty similar to us,” says Hardwick. “Anytime you go anywhere new like this, you’re always going to have to overcome a lot of challenges. But I feel like everybody has learned and adapted pretty quickly.”

2nd Lt. Viorel Radu is the chief weapons loader for the 53 FS, with responsibility to lead and coordinate the technical groups that prepare the Romanian F-16s for flight. Like Hardwick, Castle Forge marks the first time he has participated in a major exercise with other NATO allies.

“This week, we have exchanged some philosophies, some workflow, and even some maintenance skills,” says Radu. “Castle Forge is very important because it can demonstrate how fast we can learn, what we can learn, and what we can improve when working with other countries that are part of NATO.”

Besides their roles at Castle Forge, there’s another thing that brings Hardwick and Radu together: the satisfaction of being part of something bigger and knowing their fingerprints are on a jet that’s zooming fast across the skies.

“I think it’s pretty amazing to come and do missions like Castle Forge. We need to be able to do that any time, so that we can be ready for anything,” says Hardwick. “The fact that we’re able to train with other NATO countries now, it’s a great opportunity for anyone who gets to be a part of it and I can’t wait to come back and do more work with the Romanians in the future.”