PERSIAN GULF (NNS) -- The U.S. Navy is a lethal force at sea, whether on, below and above the water. Aircraft carriers play host to air wings that include fighter jets, tactical airborne early warning aircraft, electronic attack aircraft, helicopters and more.
Whether flying for training, search and rescue missions, humanitarian relief, or theater security cooperation operations, aircrews rely on hundreds of Sailors to prepare their aircraft and equipment. Those unsung heroes work to maintain equipment and keep each squadron ready to fly. Their ability to identify, troubleshoot and fix problems is critical to the survival and success of the aircrew. Life or death is truly in their hands.
Aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68), the Sailors entrusted with the vital upkeep and care for the aviation survival gear for the "Bluetails" of Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 121 belong to the parachute rigger (PR) shop. Each team member understands the importance of their role in the squadron. They know the price of one mistake in their line of work could be life.
The VAW-121 PR shop is in a small workspace aboard Nimitz where life literally hangs on the walls. Float coats, survival vests, horse collar life preservers, and cranials line each side of the room, silently waiting for their turn to protect their wearer. Rolls of fabric are wedged into spaces on the ceiling, while tools and a single sewing machine provide the PRs what they need to maintain the squadron's survival equipment.
"Our job is essential," said Aircrew Survival Equipmentman 1st Class Donald Bustin, from Laurel, Mississippi, the leading petty officer of VAW-121 PR shop. "It's all aviation life-support systems. When something happens in the aircraft, it's our gear that gets the aircrewman or aviator out safe from the aircraft to the ground. Then once they're on the ground, there are radios and equipment inside the gear that help them get to where they need to go."
Aircrews place absolute trust in their PRs. They have to know that if things don't go according to plan in the air, their equipment is ready to save them.
"I think they're the best," said Lt. j.g. Lejos Pelikan, from San Jose, California, an E-2D Hawkeye pilot from VAW-121. "They're a bunch of go-getters. I generally don't have to ask them for the work I want done. They'll just go out and do it themselves."
Aircrew survival equipmentmen, known as parachute riggers or PRs, inspect, maintain and repair search and rescue equipment, survival kits, medical kits, flight clothing, protective wear, night-vision equipment, aircrew oxygen systems, liquid oxygen converters, anti-exposure suits, g-suits and parachutes. They operate and maintain carbon dioxide transfer and recharge equipment, sewing machines and also train personnel in the use of safety and survival equipment.
Though their job is not competitive in nature, the PRs from VAW-121 are extremely proud of work they are charged to do.
"I'd like to say that we're the best PR shop in the air wing," said Bustin. "I know everyone says that, but we actually are. We've got a good group of people in here. We're a small group. We have five PRs, and even though we have a bunch of junior airmen, we're all trusted technicians."
The PR rate was created during World War II to assist in parachute survival. Although aircrew survival equipmentmen are still referred to as PRs, their official title was changed from parachute rigger in 1965 as their role expanded within aviation safety.
"It's all survival equipment," said Aircrew Survival Equipmentman 2nd Class William Lane, from Rutherfordton, North Carolina. "To me, the term parachutes rigger is amazing, and even though we're not called parachute riggers anymore, I still get to wear a little parachute on my uniform. Now, we look at everything as survival equipment, and because I jump all the time in my spare time, it really makes me want to learn more about it."
Lane started his naval career as an undesignated airman and eventually struck the rate of operations specialist and said he knew nothing about PRs back then.
"PRs were the people we never saw," said Lane. "I was attached to an aircraft carrier for five years ... but I never saw a PR. I thought they were mythical."
Already an avid skydiver, becoming a PR was a natural choice for Lane.
"The way I see it, versus every job that I've had in the Navy this is by far the best decision I've ever made," said Lane. "I wanted to work with gear that I jump with. It makes me excited to do our job. I absolutely love it. It's amazing to me. I love the flow, the work, every single thing about it."
Attention to detail is paramount in the PRs' work. Any missed equipment deficiency can put an aircrew member's life at risk, while being attentive and only accepting stellar performance from each and every member of the team can save lives. In that respect, PRs are truly the guardian angels of the squadron.