Click here for the PDF of the article as it originally appeared in the PAE employee magazine.
PAE provides maintenance services on Air Traffic Control and Landing Systems (ATCALS) and metrological equipment at Kandahar Air Field (KAF) in Afghanistan on both U.S. legacy installed and NATO installed systems. The highly specialized team of nine individuals provides support 24/7/365 under the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) contract.
KAF Transitions from NATO to U.S. Oversight
KAF was once the busiest single runway military airfield in the world. At peak operation in 2012, KAF accommodated approximately 30,000 people from 60 nations, with flights taking off and landing in as little as one-minute intervals. With the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, NATO officially handed over control to the United States in 2014.
While still one of the largest military bases in the world, KAF personnel now number only 9,000 people. Although now staffed with only a third of its previous workforce, airfield operations remain robust, supporting more than 180,000 flights in 2015. To offer a comparison, San Antonio International airport in Texas had approximately 180,000 flight operations that same year.
Sophisticated Equipment Requires Expert Maintenance
PAE's nine electronics technicians maintain radar, metrological and navigation (METNAV), radio and communications, and Air Traffic Control (ATC) automation equipment. These highly proficient subject matter experts possess advanced skills in computer architecture and peripheral devices, and knowledge of UNIX, Linux, Red Hat and Windows operating systems.
The PAE workforce at KAF is steadfast and committed to mission success despite challenging work and living conditions. "A few of my technicians have been here since 2006, a few years before PAE took over the contract in 2010," said PAE ATCALS Site Lead/Radar Maintenance Lead Sheldon Williams. "Our stable workforce is essential in maintaining the specialized equipment on base."
As a subcontractor to Readiness Management Support (RMS), the PAE team maintains a comprehensive suite of state-of-the-art equipment worth a total value of $39.4M, with the highest single piece of equipment valued at $15.8M. All equipment is International Civil Aviation Organization compliant and flight inspected by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
The technicians perform preventative and corrective maintenance, document all maintenance actions, maintain flight inspection records, and test and calibrate equipment in support of NATO (which still maintains some operations at KAF), the U.S. military and Afghan civil aviation authorities. The equipment is scattered around the airfield so, "we get around quite a bit," said Sheldon.
99% In-Service Rate
KAF, now run by the U.S. Air Force, is located on the side of a concrete barrier that separates it from Kandahar Airport, which is run by the Afghan government. (As an interesting side note, PAE conducted the master planning and design of the Kandahar Airport for the U.S. Department of State in the 1950s.) Although separate operating entities, the airfield and airport share the same runway and ATC systems. Since KAF (unlike other airfields) never closes and the runway is open around the clock, all ATC systems must remain operational and available for use at any time. To accommodate 24/7 operations, PAE technicians split into groups to work 12-hour shifts for six days in a row. "Our reaction has to be immediate because the systems are so critical," said Sheldon.
Even with unscheduled equipment maintenance issues, the majority of the equipment remains online at all times. PAE has an in-service rate of 99%, meaning that every single piece of equipment is available at least 99% of the time - well above the contract-mandated 97%.
"One thing I have said since day one - this is the best equipment I have ever seen," said Sheldon. To maintain, troubleshoot, and repair this highly specialized equipment requires specific training. When NATO installed new equipment in 2010, PAE technicians (most of whom are still on the contract today) went to factory training in Italy, England or France and received additional training from manufacturers who provided onsite equipment-specific training.
"The PAE team has developed a unique skill set to support the ATCALS, communications suites, weather systems and navigational aids purchased from commercial sources (verses being provided by the military)," said RMS Site Manager Gene Dillon. "The 99% equipment in-service rate is testament to the team's training, problem-solving skills and solid relationships with equipment vendors."
Harsh Conditions, Indirect Fire and Repetitive Routines
The austere living environment and frequent indirect fire and perimeter ground attacks make life at KAF challenging. "We do not leave the base," said Sheldon. "Despite 12-hour shifts six days a week, and our far-from-five star accommodations, we have a committed workforce. Most have a military background, which explains their extraordinary mission support mindset and long-term devotion."
"Most of us have been working together at KAF for many years, enduring harsh living conditions, extremely hot weather, loneliness and long separations from our families and hundreds of deadly attacks by the Taliban," said PAE Navigational Aids Maintenance Lead Technician Ken Wiechert. "But work at KAF has become much more than a job. We are like a family; we stick together. We support each other through the stress and difficulties that come from living in a war zone."
Although the number of indirect fire attacks (by rocket or mortar) has dwindled, employees must still be vigilant, constantly aware and prepared. "Attacks happen. Not nearly as frequently as in the past, but they still happen. We have had some close calls, but thankfully none of our employees have been injured," said Sheldon.
Hundreds of Miles of Airspace Served
"Although day-to-day operations can be repetitive and sometimes dangerous, we work with precision and without delay," said PAE Automation Technician Akilah Howard. "Our pride in and commitment to our work drive us to persevere and excel."
"Our work affects every aircraft that comes within 200 miles of KAF," said PAE Senior ATC Communications Technician Brent Biskup. "Air traffic controllers, pilots and passengers all count on us to do our job and do it well. Their safety is our responsibility, and we take that very seriously. Every Medevac flight into KAF reminds us why we are here."
"Bottom line, it's a difficult place to work. We are far from our families in an unsafe place. But we get the job done, and make the best of it," said Sheldon.