21 Days in the Belly: The Art of Avionics

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Emily Batchelor
  • 175th Wing

In the dimly lit belly of the aircraft, among the labyrinth of wires and steel, he found himself wedged into a space no larger than a sewer tunnel. It had been nearly 21 days of relentless work, a marathon of dedication to the metal giant that housed the secrets of the skies. Here, the relentless pursuit of perfection unfolded in a claustrophobic dance with complexity. The hum of machinery echoed the rhythm of his determined breaths. Defining moments such as these are a testament to the extraordinary lengths avionics specialists go to ensure the wings of freedom soar flawlessly.

The intricate work of Maryland Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Michael Gist, an avionics test station and components specialist assigned to the 175th Maintenance Squadron, and the work of unsung heroes like him, reveals the meticulous artistry that puts the “stealth” in stealth bomber.

“It is engaging in complex problem solving and I love it,” explained Gist. “Imagine something is not working right and you don’t know why. You have to take it apart and inspect each piece. You will try one solution that doesn’t work. Then you will try another solution and that fixes one thing but creates a different problem at the same time. You keep working at it and trying different things until you finally fix it. That right there is the most satisfying feeling in the world to me. When you try and fail and try again to finally solve the seemingly unsolvable problem. That is what my job is like everyday working with electronic warfare systems.”

The U.S. Air Force’s aircraft are equipped with some of the world’s most sophisticated electronic warfare systems. Avionics test component specialists, the wizards in the workshop, ensure these systems remain perfectly calibrated, keeping our pilots off the enemy’s radar.

Gist was previously assigned to the 509th Maintenance Squadron at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, where he worked on the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber. During the historic year of 2020, the work schedule of his shop underwent a seismic shift. Maintaining 24-hour operations, two teams would alternate seven days on followed by seven days off. When the alternate team was ordered to stay home for 14 days due to contact tracing, Gist’s team shouldered 12-hour shifts and overnight on-call hours for 21 consecutive days.

“It was meticulous work,” recalls Gist. “We’re crawling in super cramped spots. I am on my stomach and have my tools with me. I would be in this small space of the aircraft trying to disconnect components and test them.”

During this marathon, Gist’s team seized the chance to tackle long-pending projects, leveraging the uninterrupted focus of their relentless schedule. The benefit of having the same team for an extended period, though grueling, culminated in improved readiness, showcasing their commitment and resilience in the face of adversity.

“This resulted in the highest mission capable rate in the history of that aircraft at the time,” remembered Gist. “It enhanced the safety for our pilots and led to an increase in flying hours that year. Because of these increased capabilities, the 509th Operations Support Squadron was able to accomplish other feats that they received the Omaha Trophy for.”

The Omaha Trophy is awarded to a unit every year by the U.S. Strategic Command for excellence in strategic deterrence.

During Gist’s time with the 509th he worked in a total integrated force that included members of the Missouri Air National Guard. This is where he learned about one of the benefits that the Air National Guard offers that sold him on joining.

“I learned that I could work my same job full-time and choose the state I want to live in,” said Gist. “I learned all about AGR (active guard reserve) positions and technician positions.”

Now, Gist continues his legacy of success, full-time for the Maryland Air National Guard where he was raised. Once Gist transferred to the 175th Maintenance Squadron and integrated with their team, he began to work on the A-10C Thunderbird II aircraft, here.

“Our mission capable rate for the A-10s here is the highest it has been,” said Gist. “When I first came into this position full-time, our team divided up the workload and our mission capable rate increased to about 65% for the aircraft that year.”

The work continued and in 2023 the A-10C Thunderbolt II aircraft achieved a top mission capable rate of 71.3 percent. This was higher than the average mission capable rate of every fighter fleet in the U.S. Air Force and higher than 43 of 56 fighter units in the entire U.S. Air Force.

“I plan to continue working in avionics,” explains Gist. “There is nothing else like it. I hope to continue to serve for 20 years and then take advantage of the retirement benefits.”