Last to let you down: ALSS Marines, last hope for ejecting pilots

19 Oct 2007 | Lance Cpl. James M. Mercure

If the time ever comes for Fightertown’s finest to eject from their aircraft, the Air Station’s Marines and sailors from Aviation Life Support Systems ensure the parachutes and other emergency gear are ready when a pilots’ life depends on it.

But, before a parachute can even be put on an aircraft, it must first go through a painstaking inspection process.

“We give a detailed inspection of the parachute for rips, tears, improper rigging and expired parts,” said Sgt. Keith Lagasse, an ALSS collateral duty quality assurance representative. “Inspection and packing, depending on the parachute, can take anywhere from 1-3 days, but we can work on any aircraft platform in the Navy or Marine Corps.”

“The Marines and sailors of ALSS realize that the pilots’ lives are in our hands and that is why we do such tedious inspections,” said Staff Sgt. Anthony Cech, the flight equipment staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge for Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 115.

The parachutes must be checked on a 448-day cycle as part of their scheduled maintenance, according to Sgt. Frances White, an ALSS flight equipment technician.

In order to pack the parachute into the small containers that sit behind the pilots’ heads, the ALSS Marines and sailors have to use mechanical help.

“It takes a 5-ton press to pack a 21-foot parachute into a box less than one foot wide,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeff Knox, an aircrew survival equipment man with ALSS.

The packed parachutes used aboard the Air Station are multicolored for concealment and signaling giving the gear an additional use after landing.

“Each color has a different purpose,” Knox explained. “The canopies have three different colors for use as camouflage and international orange to be used as a distress signal.”

In 2006, Maj. Steven Feltenberger, a former pilot with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 122, ejected from his aircraft using the gear packed and maintained by the Air Station’s ALSS Marines and sailors.

“We (pilots) just rely on the fact that our emergency gear is going to work, and fortunately for me it did,” Feltenberger said. “All of these Marines did their job and because of them, I can still see my family.”

For the ALSS Marines and sailors aboard the Air Station, letting pilots down safely is the best part of their job.

“Having a pilot and his family come in and say thank you for saving his life is the best feeling in the world,” White said.

“In eight years, I’ve had two ejections and both pilots survived,” Knox said. “There is nothing better than having a pilot call you and say, ‘thanks for saving my life.’”