Team Kingsley dedicated crew chief says goodbye to jet, hopeful for new airframe

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Jefferson Thompson
  • 173rd Fighter Wing

KINGLEY FIELD, Ore. -- Aircraft spend their lives in arduous service—flying constantly, circling the globe in both extreme heat and cold alike, sometimes in the same mission—and they fly combat missions. These years take their toll.

The fighter aircraft at Kingsley Field boast long lives, taking to the skies of southern Oregon for max-performance missions despite being more than 30 years old. Each time they return to their dedicated crew chief, their Eagle Keeper, who is there to prepare them for their next mission.

However, there comes a time when these F-15 Eagles have spent their considerable strength—their bones aren’t what they used to be. Happens to all of us.

Master Sgt. Charles Fleek has launched his aircraft, tail number 78-0511, countless times. Today is different, today is the last time he’ll launch it as it makes its final flight to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, often called “The Boneyard”.

“It died; I say died because that’s how it feels,” said Fleek. “The jet was built in ’78 … Its last mission was December 21, 2022.”

He signed the aircraft, right below his name stenciled on its side that day, commemorating its long service, and pending retirement.

“It’s hard to watch your jet leave after you’ve put that much care and effort and time into something,” he said.

One such effort he remembers shortly after receiving the jet it developed intermittent overload warning system faults. The OWS communicates with various systems throughout the aircraft and constantly analyzes the structural loads exerted from pulling G’s—warning a pilot if they are going to cross the aircraft’s limit.

That system would fall offline during high-G maneuvers, and for six months he and many others searched without success to find the source of the problem.

Finally, after the painstaking process of checking miles of wiring inside the F-15 with help of the avionics shop, they found it. “Call it luck, call it experience, call it persistence—you just keep on searching—it was probably a six-month battle, and when we finally found it was like ‘Victory!’” he said.

Experiences like that are part of being a dedicated crew chief, Fleek says, and adds that it’s something every dedicated crew chief experiences as they work to maintain an aging aircraft. That investment of time and energy create a bond with the machine and he said he’s always taken pride in providing a solid jet to the pilots.

“When your jet flies and comes back, the first thing you ask is, ‘how did it go?’ and the pilot says ‘the jet was fantastic,’” Fleek said.  “That’s a very satisfying feeling.”

Although watching his jet leave for the last time was hard, he’s excited about what the future holds for Kingsley Field and his fellow crew chiefs.

“I am so excited to see new iron on this ramp; to get the EX,” he said, referring to the announcement that the 173rd Fighter Wing is slated to receive the F-15 EX Eagle II in 2024. “I never thought I’d ever see any sort of a new airframe, I figured I’d be a C and D guy for my whole career.”

The month of April saw five Kingsley Field jets retired from the fleet, either flying to “The Boneyard” or being hauled there on a trailer. It’s the largest number of aircraft retired in a single month at the base and it signals the eventual sunset of the F-15C and coming transition to the F-15EX.