Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Unauthorized Auxiliary Lighting (A Black Hat Tale)

The Collings Foundation's F-4D Phantom II
Once upon a time, a decree went out from Wing Headquarters of the Mighty Wolf Pack that all the world was to be taxed (oops, wrong story) there was a dire need for an individual to fill the role of Weapons Control Systems Flightline Quality Assurance Inspector. A need so dire that it would be permissable to yank a currently serving member of either the 8th Aircraft Generation Squadron (AGS) or 8th Component Repair Squadron (CRS) to fill that job. There could be no long wait for a new body to be assigned in from "Stateside".

So there I was, reporting for duty one fine, lovely Korean afternoon (for I worked the 1500 - 2300 shift in the Radar Calibration "barn") and there sat "The Boss", Tech Sergeant Skip (whom we've met before, here.) He had "that look" which indicated to me that there was something "wrong". Not that I had done anything "wrong" but that what was about to happen had the potential to make me unhappy.

He then sat me down and explained to me that beginning forthwith (not that day but the following Monday) I would be reporting to Wing Headquarters for to become a "QA Puke" as we affectionately termed them. My first thought was "what have I done to deserve this?"

But Skip went on to explain that they had pretty much requested me "by name". Seems that I had had a pretty good rapport with the old QA guy and I did have a certain reputation for being a complete prick pretty good at my job. So they wanted me, there was no debate, no counter-argument I could offer, I would report there next Monday morning. Any questions? Skip asked with that "I'm ready and raring to argue so let's get it over with" face he would don from time to time. (For supervising WCS troops was very much like herding cats, except that the cats are much more cooperative.)

It was then that I stunned Skip. For I looked him in the eye and said, "Sure, sounds like fun." Skip waited, assuming (of course) that I was being sarcastic. But I just sat there and said nothing.


"You understand that you're being reassigned, permanently?" Skip asked.

"So if I extend again, I'm stuck in Wing HQ?" For now I was a bit concerned. While staff jobs are okay for a while, a permanent gig seemed somewhat daunting. I mean I could handle meetings with our maintenance officer (a captain) and from time to time the squadron commander (a major). But at Wing I'd have the occasion to be in meetings with full colonels. To include the Deputy Commander for Maintenance (DCM) and from time to time even that lordly personage the Wing Commander himself!

Skip said that he would look into that. (He did and it turns out that my stint in QA would last roughly six months until they got a more senior guy in from Stateside. Seems the billet I would be filling was for an E-6 and I was an E-5. Oh well.)

So the following Monday I showed up at the QA offices. Discovered that everyone except the admin guy outranked me. Wonderful. Second thing I discovered was that the guys on day shift didn't really serve any discernable, real-life, necessary function. Yup, they were basically billet-filling, paper-pushing, go-to-meetings staff pukes. I asked the captain when I could go on night shift.

Dead silence. Everyone looking awkwardly at everyone else. No one knowing quite what to say. Until one old Master Sergeant spoke up, "You actually want to be on night shift?"

Um, yes. Yes I do. Sitting at a desk is not why I signed on to this man's Air Force. No sir, no how. (My desire to be behind a desk came later in life. And not as a staff-weenie.)

So, they huddled, they discussed, they harumphed and then it seems that a decision had been made. I would report to work on swing shift the very next week.


"Uh, why not tomorrow?" I asked, in all innocence.

"Well, um, let me see, uh, oh, the Colonel, yes the DCM himself, has to approve having two guys on night shift instead of just one." the captain managed to sputter.

Oh well, I guess I could wait a week. And what a boring week that was. Seems the day shift guys didn't do much more than read tech manuals, leave instructions for the guy on night shift and then review the night shift guy's nightly reports. For the night shift guy actually went out to the flight line, he would actually watch the guys maintaining the aircraft. He actually had a real function, ensuring the quality of the maintenance performed on our two squadrons of mighty Phantoms.


One guy working at night. Five sergeants, one airman admin type and a captain to evaluate and adjudicate the night shift guy's findings. Wonderful. I seriously wondered if they would have to double the numbers on day shift now that night shift would have two guys. Nope, said the old Master Sergeant, but now we'll just have to work harder on day shift. (And he said that like he was, ya know, serious!)

Okay. At least it wouldn't take more guys to accomplish what little they actually did on day shift. No skin off my butt. I'd be on night shift.

So the following week I reported for night shift. The guy I was working with was a Tech Sergeant. Now I knew why he was on the night shift. With the exception of the airman admin guy and the captain, all the other guys were Master Sergeants. So, as is the norm, the lower ranking guys got what was viewed as the "less desirable" shifts.

Except many of us could never figure out why day shift was in any way, shape or form, "desirable". All the big shots were around during the day. You had to get up early. The jets were flying most of the day so we couldn't work on them. And, the big shots were around during the day. (Yes, I mentioned that twice. No normal person liked being around the big shots.)

On night shift we got to ride around in our truck and talk on the radio and observe the maintenance guys in their natural habitat. In fact, we started referring to driving around on the flight line as "going on safari". (And the captain told us no, we couldn't wear shorts, bush hats and talk in South African accents. Not that we could've pulled off that last bit anyway.)

So, one of the first things I learned was that we had our very own call sign. We were "Snoop", because we were always snooping around, annoying the wild life. And Job Control, the guys we dealt with most of the time, the guys who controlled the flow of aircraft maintenance, their call sign was "Wolf", short for Wolf Pack Job Control.

If we wanted to call them, we'd hit the button and say "Wolf, Snoop". (Short hand for "Hi Wolf Pack Job Control, it's us, the Snoopers".) They would answer with simply "Wolf". Reverse the order to get traffic to us, as in "Snoop, Wolf", "Snoop" was (of course) our reply. I thought it was "cool". (And no, I didn't get out much in those days. After all I was married. Where we were was an "unaccompanied tour" as in the Air Force would send you, but not your family. So many of the folk there were effectively "single". I was very effectively "married". My wife being Korean, she was already in place when I arrived. And would remind me that while all my buddies might be out on the town drinking and chasing women, I was to be home at a reasonable hour. Thank you very much! Oh, and don't drink too much. Grrrr.)

Anyhoo.

One night we headed out "on safari" and knew that this night was going to be more interesting than it normally was. For not only was maintenance going on, so was flying. The Wing was practising night operations so we planned on spending an appreciable amount of time down near the end of the runway where the BB-Stackers would be prepping the aircraft just prior to take-off, called the "Arming Area". Doing their thing which would allow the ordinance to come off the airplane as it was designed to do once in the air. (For there were safety devices to prevent this while on the ground. One of the last things to happen before the jets headed for the "hold short" was to have those safety devices removed, in the Arming Area. Fun to watch. From a safe distance of course. Wouldn't want our precious QA Pukes to get hurt now would we. Especially now that I was one!)

After an hour or so of patrolling the Whiskey Arches (see below) we saw one jet getting ready to taxi out and launch. We thought it would be cool to do so and we so informed Job Control. To which they said:

"Snoop, Wolf. That's a roger on the follow." (Or other cool sounding radio words to that effect.)


Aircraft Shelter, What we called a "Whiskey Arch".

We watched the crew chief (plane captain to you nautical types) guide the jet out of the arch, render a snappy salute and then we took up a position in trail for to follow the Phantom as it trundled out to the arming area. (At a distance where we would not be troubled by jet blast mind you.)

As we followed the aircraft, something began to trouble me. At first I couldn't put my finger on it. It appeared that there was a light of some kind on the back seater's left side cockpit ledge. The place where the canopy would settle upon closing, the place where the cool kids would put their arms as they taxiied with the canopies open. The place where the crew chief would kneel over as he helped the crew strap into the jet.

Now there was a map light on a cord which the WSO could unclip from the side of the cockpit to examine maps, mysterious documents, comic books and various and sundry other forms of printed matter (for this was in the day before all of your fancy handheld ee-lek-tronical dee-vices came into being). But no, I've used that map light before. While its cord would stretch that far, why would you bother? Also it was night, normally the red lens would be used at night. (So as not to ruin ones ability to see in the dim light. Kind of important if one is going to be flying at night.) The light I was seeing was white.

Then it struck me. That cockpit ledge would also be a logical place for someone to set something down if they needed both hands to do something for the intrepid airman about to "slip the surly bonds". Something like (remember it's night time) a FLASHLIGHT!

Turning to my compadre I pointed out the lighting where there should be no lighting. His eyebrows went up and he got on the magical talking box and let Job Control know that there was something amiss with aircraft tail number such and such and would they please get the BB-Stackers in the Arming Area to check it out?

We observed someone climb up the side of the jet. Saw the light source waiver, then go out. Then we observed that same someone climb down off the jet. Moments later the magic talking box came to life...

"Snoop, Wolf."

"Snoop."

"Yeah, good catch Snoop. We had the guys in the Arming Area remove that 'Unauthorized Auxiliary Lighting' from the back cockpit. I'm sure that the crew chief for that bird is wondering where his flashlight is. He can explain it to the colonel tomorrow morning."

"Wolf, out."

Of course we were in hysterics at the term 'Unauthorized Auxiliary Lighting'. And, being the highly trained professionals we were, entered that in our nightly log. That should cause some raised eyebrows on the day shift. (It did.)

Oh, and that crew chief? Yes, he had a nice explanation for the colonel the next morning as to the lost flashlight. Seems it consisted mostly of "Yes, Sir." "No, Sir." "No excuse, Sir." No, the colonel was not pleased.

But we had fun.



This is the first in what may (or may not) be
a series dealing with my time in Flightline QA.
There are many tales of the flightline, this was one. A
Black Hat Tale, for QA wore black ball caps with "8th TFW QA"
prominently displayed on the front of the cap.

22 comments:

  1. You earned yer dollar-three-ninety-eight THAT night.

    I did a stint as a radar maintenance QA guy at the end of my semi-illustrious radar career... before I got my desk. We didn't have Special Hats, but we DID have very official looking clipboards. And other radar maintenance types did NOT look upon us fondly, that much I remember. Other than that I try and block as much of that experience from my memory as I can.

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    1. Ah yes, the love and fondness which we received from our avionics brethern was... NOT!!

      OMG, you got to play QA as well?

      The parallels in our respective careers probably merits it's own Twilight Zone episode.

      Curiouser and curioser...

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  2. Reminds me of a fresh faced arrogant 2nd LT, new to our unit, leading us on a road march to a training area. Directed the M-151 driver to turn right at the next corner. The driver tried to protest, that that wasn't the route. Was told to turn anyway. Narrow German farm road that dead ended 3/4 of a mile later. Twenty or so 5 ton bridge trucks, half with trailers, were stuck. Took a couple of hours to sort out. Don't think the LT enjoyed his "face time" with the CO, Group S-3 Major, the local poletzi, and one pissed off German farmer.

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    1. Ah, brand new second looeys, ya gotta love 'em.

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    2. HEY! I was one of them once...And would give a considerable amount were it possible to be again.

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    3. It's okay juvat, all three of the progeny were once Ensigns. And oh my was THAT fun!

      (And I hear ya on the going back in time thing.)

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    4. BTW in your top photo (of the Collins bird), do you remember if that Tail Number was at the Kun? It sure seems familiar one me.

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    5. At first I could have sworn that bird was in Korea. But my research indicates that there were two F-4s to bear that 7680 tail number. One, an F-4C (63-7680) was shot down in January of 1967. The other, an F-4D (66-7680) was shot down in July of 1972.

      Normally the first small number on the tail indicates the year (which would be 1963 in the Colling's birds case) but as the evidence indicates that they indeed own an F-4D (and my own eyes say so too), then that 37 680 on the tale seems out of place. And probably is.

      Now the F-4C of that tail number was flown by Robin Olds on the occasion of his shooting down a MiG-21. I've seen evidence that this Collings' jet has been repainted to look like that C-model which Gen Olds was flying when he downed the MiG. It's the only story I can find which makes any sense. So it's a Delta masquerading as a Charlie!

      Does make me wonder though what the old girl's real tail number is...

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  3. Sarge, you are a truly gifted story teller!

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    1. Thanks Six [said with a real "aw shucks" kind of vibe...]

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  4. I spent a delightful beery evening many years ago with a certain Apollo astronaut (who shall remain un-named) talking about the good old days. He told me about his "unauthorized auxiliary lighting" experience. Seems he had decided to rig up his own lighted knee board and wired it into the cockpit circuit. One very dark night he was flying over the Sea of Japan and he hit the switch to light up his fancy knee board, and the whole cockpit went dark.

    There he was, no lights, no radio, and no f**ing clue as the where the boat was. He thought he was toast until he noticed a faint trail of luminescence on the water below. He followed it and it led him to home plate. The knee board got $hitcanned. The astronaut learned a lesson about "unauthorized auxiliary lighting" and realized that it was better to leave the systems in the hands of the experts. Years later those experts saved his a$$ on a memorable flight.

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    1. That's a story I'm familiar with. The pilot too. A good story it is and thanks for reminding me of it.

      Awesome that you had the chance to share a beverage with him!

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  5. I could have swore Lex once told a story about "unauthorized auxiliary lighting" once upon a time. But, perhaps, I misremember.

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    1. I think you're right, I seem to recall something along those lines.

      If you find it first, let me know!

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  6. Hats!
    You guys wore hats?
    We looked for every excuse in the book not to wear a hat.
    If you were wearing a hat, you had to salute.

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    1. Yes, we wore hats. How could you tell we were "the bad guys" without the black hats?

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    2. Oh yeah, I wear them all the time now too.

      In lieu of hair...

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  7. Hey Sarge, I'm back up online- Computer checks SAT- 4.0. As for the aux light, I could make some snide comment about the USAF tool control program, how a Navy Airedale would check to ensure every slot in his tool belt was filled before he left the cockpit, but I'll leave it be!

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    1. Glad you're back!

      The Air Force actually had a very good tool control program back in my day. The problems always arose from some kid not paying attention.

      That's why we had QA guys roaming the line.

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  8. Great story! Always good to hear that you maintained your sense of (irreverent?!) humor throughout your AF career. Life's too short and that sort of thing.

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    1. Well, it's the only sense of humor I've got. Of course I'm gonna maintain it. Tradition and all that.

      And yes, for the most part life is too short to take it too seriously.

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Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)