U.S. airmen working 14-hour shifts at Aviano

Mechanics from Maryland keep NATO planes flying from staging area in Italy

War In Yugoslavia

April 23, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- The Air Force pilots streaking through the skies over Yugoslavia get the glory -- and the danger -- but men and women on the ground get them there and back.

They rely on comrades like Marylanders Master Sgt. Michael L. Hare and Airman 1st Class Jean M. Perez to keep their stealth bombers and F-16 Fighting Falcons in fighting shape.

Hare, 37, of Baltimore and Perez, 20, of Rockville are among the hundreds of support staff working 12- to 14-hour days at this military base in the Italian countryside, the staging ground for the NATO airstrikes against Yugoslav forces in Serbia and Kosovo. They are the mechanics under the hoods of some of the world's most sophisticated and costly flying machines.

Hare, who grew up in Southwest Baltimore, and Perez, a graduate of Rockville High School, belong to the Aviano-based 510th Fighter Squadron "Buzzards." They do the unglamorous but essential jobs of support element chief and avionics specialist.

Think high-tech Maytag men -- "Jet Macs," as they are known in the Air Force -- not Top Guns.

Hare keeps track of the squadron's diagnostic equipment, from the tiniest screwdriver to bulky radar pressure sets.

"Right now, we have a lot of increased usage, with four- to five-hour sorties," Hare said of missions flown by the squadron's F-16 jets. "With increased usage, you're going to have an increased breakage rate. It's like a light bulb. With increased use, they burn out."

Perez tests and repairs the electronics of the aircraft, including the computers that direct bombs to their targets and the videos that record their hits. "It's definitely a big change in the pace," said Perez. "I call it Operation Deny Sleep."

When Operation Allied Force got under way a month ago, Hare's mother in Highlandtown wondered about her son's involvement and worried.

"I'm a mother," says Mary Shelton, 59, by way of explanation.

But she also knew better. Hare has been overseas 13 of his 19 years in the Air Force. He served in Qatar during the 1991 Persian Gulf war and in Turkey at the start of U.S.-led enforcement of the "no-fly zones" over northern and southern Iraq.

"I don't worry about Michael too much," Shelton confided in a telephone interview. "He really does take care of himself."

Since the beginning of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia a month ago, the population at the Aviano Air Base has increased substantially: a tent city was erected on a field to house 1,000 Air Force and Marine troops.

But to veterans of the 31st Air Expeditionary Wing based at Aviano, the 24-hour operation is only the latest in a series of headline-making missions launched from the sprawling base.

Most recently, Aviano crews, in the air and on the ground, have been enforcing the no-fly zone over Bosnia.

Despite logging 14-hour days in a cavernous hangar, Hare tries to maintain balance in his life. "You have to maintain some semblance of normalcy or you'll burn out."

Hare has kept up with his schooling. He had a calculus exam last week -- "I think I got a B."

He and his wife, Luana, live in a village near the base. Her parents are from nearby and this is his second tour at Aviano.

His 16-year-old daughter, Krissy, is a student at a military dependents school on the base.

"We're getting my daughter ready for her prom," said Hare, who joined the Air Force two weeks after his graduation from Southwestern High School. "The dress is already here. She knows who's taking her. She had a haircut appointment today."

On a recent day off, Hare drove his daughter's prom date -- the Italian boy next door -- to the base florist so he could choose the flowers he would present to her.

"He's worried about that," Hare said, referring to the traditional corsage. "Italians don't have a prom. He wants to make sure he has the right one."

Perez, a bachelor, works on his car, a black Ford Probe, in his free time. And there are his nights at the Western House, a pizza parlor and bar, and "The Green Stage," a local pub. While shopping at the post exchange, Perez bumped into a high school friend who is among the additional Air Force crews at Aviano.

"Hey don't I know you," he asked his former classmate.

"It turns out he joined the Air Force two weeks before me," Perez added. "It's a small world."

At the 510th's hangar, a placard charts the group's operations since October: 759 runs and 3,131 flying hours. It includes the squadron's participation in the Yugoslavia conflict.

Staff Sgt. Brian Badovinac, 36, of Waldorf hasn't been home much for dinner in the past month.

As the crew chief of an F-16, Badovinac is responsible for ensuring that his plane is fit for duty. That means repairing everything from flat tires to flight-control panels.

"The planes are holding up just fine -- at least the Buzzards," he said, of the squadron's fleet.

Since the start of the operation, Badovinac has been working the night shift, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. He missed his 7-year-old son David's school play. His bedtime stories for 4-year-old daughter, Sara, have stopped for the time being.

He sees his wife Emily as she's heading off to work. "She's had to pick up everything from the bills to daily chores," he said.

"If I am there [at home], I'm usually sleeping," the La Plata High School graduate said. "And it's all been because of Mr. Milosevic. Hopefully, we're doing something positive and it'll be over soon."

Pub Date: 4/23/99

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