Serving in the Jamaican Air Force Sounds Like a Rough Job
In 2011, Jamaica’s air arm was ‘working miracles’ to keep aircraft flying
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
In 2011, a group of U.S. Air Force advisers arrived in Jamaica to find technicians with the Jamaica Defense Force Air Wing — the official name of the Caribbean island country’s air force — “working miracles” to keep a small fleet of fixed-wing planes and helicopters flying.
War Is Boring obtained a report of the advisers’ three-day trip via the Freedom of Information Act. If you’re not familiar with the Jamaican air force, then get ready … because working for it doesn’t sound easy. But it’s also a proud, lean force which relies on ingenuity to overcome limited resources.
Jamaica’s tiny military traces its origins to the West India Regiment, a colonial force the British Empire created on the island in 1795. As of 2013, the Jamaica Defense Force had fewer than 3,000 active members, only 140 of who were in the Air Wing, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ edition of The Military Balance for that year.
At that time, at least on paper, the force had a grand total of four planes and eight choppers. When Air Force officials visited in September 2011, they were both shocked and impressed with what they saw.
“I was not only impressed, but fascinated with the fact that the maintenance technicians are able to work hard and get the job done with minimal personnel and the lack of tools,” one of the trainers reported.
Air Force censors redacted all the names from the document.
“Behind the scenes there is a battle of not having enough personnel and the proper or enough tools that other maintenance units are equipped with,” the official continued. “The technicians call it ‘working miracles’ everyday.”
This wasn’t hyperbole. The Air Wing had no full-time aircraft inspectors and 11 technicians had taken on the job as an additional duty.
Air Wing officers seemed too busy to check on their work regularly. So, the technicians evaluated their co-workers on their own to make sure everyone was getting the right training and keeping up their skills.
This was no easy task, since the maintenance crews all shared the same pool of worn out tools. This meant that if one repair team was working on a plane or helicopter, others would have to wait their turn.
Since they had little money to buy new equipment, the crews had even built their own gear for more specialized repairs. No one, apparently, expected the Jamaican government to offer up more funding.
“The technicians could possibly accomplish different fundraisers in order to
raise money at the unit level and purchase the tools/tool boxes,” the Air Force official suggested instead. “Examples: car washes, food plates, baked goods or donations.”
More importantly, with few resources and little oversight, the technicians felt underappreciated. “Awards, certificates or days off can be given for superior performance,” the American adviser suggested. “Days off are always good, since this was a topic mostly discussed between the technicians.”
Another American trainer had similar experiences when they met with the Air Wing’s logistics staff. The individual was impressed to find the Jamaicans had a computerized list that showed the exact number and location of all spare parts, fuel and other materials.
The Jamaican troops made a full inventory of their gear every quarter and randomly checked two warehouses to verify their contents every day. As a result, the Air Wing commander received accurate, daily briefings about whether his fleet was in need of parts or other supplies.
The Air Wing’s “ability to adapt and overcome is impressive,” the U.S. Air Force official wrote. The staff “are truly proud of the work they do with minimal manning and resources.”
Given the good state of things already, “training, funding and support will allow the [Jamaica Defense Force] to have a remarkable warehouse and documentation sections,” the American observer declared.
But knowing where everything was didn’t mean those storage arrangements were safe. Troops had put fuels, lubricants and other hazardous materials all together in one building with a single door reading “no smoking.”
This warehouse didn’t have a single fire extinguisher in sight. Troops didn’t have adequate gloves, safety glasses and respirators to handle the sometimes toxic materials.
Inside “the … floor was cluttered,” the Air Force adviser reported. “Items were placed directly on the floor and [the] building lacked adequate ventilation.”
This all would have violated basic U.S. military procedures. The Air Force officials recommended using Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards to improve safety.
Elsewhere, broken parts and other “condemned items” were still on the shelves. The gear took up valuable space and could cause confusion about what was and wasn’t actually available to the repair crews.
According to the report, the Jamaican troops were receptive to the advice and recommendations. But since American advisers were suggesting bake sales as a way to find extra money, we don’t know if the Air Wing had the spare resources to put those plans into action.
With such a small fleet of aircraft and limited funding, both parties seem to have downplayed any sense of urgency. “To date, there have been no incidents/mishaps that were maintenance related.”
However, in July 2009, one of the country’s Bell 412EP helicopters had been completely destroyed in a crash. “The aircraft experienced difficulties and subsequently crashed,” was all the Jamaica Defense Force would say at the time.
By February 2011, the Jamaican government was still investigating the incident that seriously injured the three crew. The Air Force officials didn’t mention the accident or the probe in their report.
In the next five years, the Air Wing did get some newer, single engine training planes, but had not bought a replacement helicopter. In September 2016, the British government also donated a single engine Cessna plane to the Jamaica Combined Cadet Force, an organization akin to the U.S. Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program.
We don’t know if repair crews ran any car washes to pay for new tools in the intervening years. But while the Jamaican air force could surely learn a few things from the United States, the U.S. Air Force could also learn a few things from Jamaica.