June 21 marked the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, in Anchorage – when 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. share the same amount of sunlight and potentially a similar number of people cooking on their backyard grill.
In contrast, Dec. 21 is the city's traditional winter solstice, when even those working day shift will travel to and from work through cold darkness.
Airman 1st Class Kyron Abraham worked the day shift during those winter months. He drove to work through the cold night of day to the 3rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, and joined his three-man team in relieving the night shift. Then the order came to load munitions on a jet for the Combat Alert Cell, a unit that tracks U.S. airspace for foreign incursions.
"They normally put the best crews, crews they can trust to load it correctly, onto those (real-world) jobs," the F-22 Raptor weapons specialist said. "It's the hard evidence that we're doing a good job. It feels like there's an actual point to all the training and everything they taught us since we joined."
His team requested live munitions, 20 mm rounds, an AIM-9 Sidewinder and an AIM-120 advanced medium-range, air-to-air missile, and collected tools. Some were what might be expected, like wrenches and screwdrivers. Some were specific to the F-22, such as pylons that hold external fuel tanks, or a one-step loading adapter.
The technicians, equipped with steel-toed boots, earplugs and industrial ear muffs, headed to the jet. Abraham said he chose not to wear extra layers; despite the cold, the heat from the jet kept him warm.
"I feel like I’m actually making a difference, and not just doing menial tasks all day," he said. "We load missiles onto jets."
After initial checks and inspections, they started the stealth fighter and accessed the system through a laptop so they could open and close weapons station doors.
They lowered the stations so the missiles could be loaded without hitting the keel beam in the center. Abraham helped hand-carry the AIM-9s to be loaded onto the sides.
Next, the crews loaded the 20 mm rounds into the gun.
"It's pretty much a trailer you bring up to the side of the jet, take the loader head and hook it up to the gun," he said. "From there, you can hand-crank it, use the jet's power, or pressurized air to cycle the rounds into the gun. I've loaded jets with live munitions a few times -- just keeping our borders safe."
There's more to it than just putting the missile onto the station, Abraham said. Weapons specialists are responsible for ensuring all the equipment works properly. They perform tests to make sure there's proper communication with the jet. There's a lot that goes with putting the missile on the station; you have to know how it all works and how it all ties together, he said.
"If you (work) weapons, you don't just handle the missiles themselves," he said. "You handle the stations and make sure the signal goes through from the jet to the station. You have to have a weapons design mentality. You also have the electrical skills and all the mechanical skills."
Abraham studied computer engineering in school prior, before looking for something different.
"I've been working with computers since middle school," he said. "All my friends back home did junior ROTC, so I knew of the Air Force. I knew you could get an education while serving. My dad was in the Navy, so I kept the military in the back of my mind.
"I wanted to do something different," he continued. "I knew about the F-22 before I joined, I thought it was a really cool jet; the only stealth fighter. I wanted to be part of that."
After basic military training and technical school, Abraham requested an assignment to Elmendorf.
"We only had a few choices," the native of Reistertown, Maryland, said. "There are only so many bases that have F-22s, but there are also only so many you can get assigned to straight out of technical school. Alaska was definitely first on my list; my friends said they thought it would be a frozen wasteland, but I also had a lot of friends who loved it and said it was the most-sought base."
Abraham said he became part of the team quickly after arriving in Alaska.
"When I first came here, it was almost overwhelming," the weapons specialist said. "I got (about) eight different invitations to thanksgiving. I felt kind of bad for turning people down because I'd already been invited to someone else's house. Everybody definitely looks out for each other. You always have your friends with you, no matter what job you do; you always have somebody to help you, or just kill time with you."
The Airman said he quickly found where he belonged.
"We're in a weapons family, since we're around these guys every day," he said. "You're not just working by yourself; you also have a team chief and the other person on your team. We're always three people, traveling together."
Abraham said the teams also host friendly competitions to improve their teamwork and skills.
"Loading for a load crew competition is the most challenging part of the job," he said. "It's easy enough to load, but you're being watched the entire time. Not only do you have to do everything correctly, you have to do it kind of fast. Sometimes you overthink a few steps. You'll miss it the first time and have to go back and get it. I really like loading; it's one of my favorite parts of this job. I'm definitely trying to beat the other crew's time, but also do it correctly."
"(Abraham is) one of the better guys I think we have," said Staff Sgt. Matthew Corbin, a 3rd AMXS, weapons team chief. "Anytime you ask him to do something, he does it right (on) the first try. He's never let me down yet. He's been on the fastest load crew for the month a couple times."
This race to be first, Abraham said, produces an adrenaline rush.
"It's fun, but it's a lot of work,” he added. “You (also) have the friendly crew rivalries. Even though we all work together, we'll have friendly rivalries, saying my crew can do this better than your crew. It's pretty fun in that aspect. It's like the load crew competitions, just on a small scale."
It's important for munitions to be equipped onto the jets, he said, since without munitions, the F-22 would just be a jet.
"It feels like I'm a part of that since we upload the jets to keep them flying," he said. "Our mission helps round out the F-22. The plan (is) for the jet to get behind enemy lines undetected. If they need to, take out a target and then escape without being detected. The munitions help the jet take out those targets. The pilots know they are safe and can defend themselves if they need to."