Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Things That Make You Go "Hhmm" (A Black Hat Tale)

As I have mentioned before (here and here) I was once a dirty, rotten scoundrel Quality Assurance (QA) guy in the best fighter wing of all time, the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, the mighty Wolf Pack (YMMV).

Our job in QA was to make everyone's lives miserable ensure that the maintenance performed on our two squadrons of mighty F-4D Phantoms was the best it could possibly be.
8th TFW Wing Commander's Bird
(Peter R. Foster Photo)
One of the ways we monitored the performance of the maintenance in the Wing was sneaking around patrolling the flightline and unnccessarily harassing performing random checks on any goofballs maintainers actually goofing off working on the jets. We looked for two things really: proper tool accountability and following the proper maintenance checklists and technical orders.

Leave a tool laying around, don't have an official checklist or tech order and we would burn at the stake counsel the complete idiot erring technician as to the right way to do things versus the wrong way. Usually this was merely an ass-chewing "on the spot" correction, if the offense was minor. You know, the old "don't let us catch you doing this again" kind of thing.

However, sometimes we would have to file paperwork with the Deputy Commander for Maintenance (DCM) indicating the nature of the violation, individual's name, rank and squadron, the circumstances and location of the violation and any other relevant information whereby we could determine whether the violation was solely the individual doing something wrong or a systemic problem with the individual's squadron. This was done in an effort to make everyone's lives on the flightline a living Hell prevent future occurrences of poor maintenance practices and (as always) make sure that when our air crew went out, they also came back. With the jet. In one piece and (preferably) still flyable.

I have to say, the maintenance guys in the 8th were, nearly to a man/woman, top notch, dedicated and well-trained professionals. A fighter wing doesn't get to be the "best of all time" with crappy maintenance. That's for sure. But there were occasions when one or more complete f**king idiots not quite fully trained personnel would slip through the cracks and actually manage to get near a jet with toolbox in hand. 'Twas them we black hats kept a weather eye open for.

There were four incidents that I can actually remember in my dotage stand out in my mind. Two involved string, one involved a cigar and one involved hydraulic fluid. Disparate elements I know, but bear with me. (I really wanted to use the word "disparate" in a sentence today, don't ask me why...)

Of these four incidents, the two involving string were humorous, the one involving the cigar a bit more serious but still worth a chuckle (sorry Freud, it's just a cigar this time), the one involving hydraulic fluid anything but humorous. For today's post, I give you...

String Theory (As Practiced in the 8th TFW)

(I'll save the cigar and hydraulic fluid stories for another time.)

There we were, trundling down the flightline in our trusty 6-passenger International Harvester (IH) pickup truck observing all the activity on the line. Nothing escaping our eagle eyes. (Well, actually it was a fairly quiet night. So we didn't need to be that observant.) As we rolled past one of the whiskey arches I noticed something odd. A piece of string hanging down the side of the jet parked therein. 

Aircraft Shelter or Whiskey Arch
(For those of you who didn't take notes here.)
"Hey Billy, hold on, back up to that last arch on the right!"

Billy stopped and then slowly backed up, then pulled into the area in front of the jet.

"What a ya got Sarge?"

I indicated the string hanging from the front cockpit, reaching all the way down to the concrete floor of the arch. Billy and I both wondered what the heck this was all about. Turning off the engine, we dismounted the vehicle. Sliding out of the truck we sauntered over to the aircraft, scanning for whoever was working on this mighty aerospace vehicle. Didn't seem to be anyone in sight.

Now Billy was by trade an Aerospace Ground Equipment (AGE) specialist. He was one of those who had maintained the power equipment, hydraulic carts, lighting equipment and the various and sundry (not to mention divers) pieces of hardware that we aircraft maintenance types needed to work on the aircraft. Point being is that Billy was not, per se, an aircraft guy. So the piece of string, while anomalous, was not really unusual to him. After all, every F-4 had a piece of string permanently affixed to the top of the radome, called the "yaw string".

What's that you say? What's a "yaw string" for? Hhmm, let me explain.

As can be seen in the diagram above, an aircraft has three axes of movement: roll (picture the wings "waggling"), pitch (picture the nose going up or down) and yaw (picture the jet "crabbing" or moving in one direction with the nose pointing in a different direction). Now there are instruments in the cockpit to let the pilot know whether or not his/her wings are level with the horizon and whether or not the nose of the aircraft is pointing at the horizon or above it (climbing) or below it (diving).

There is no instrument in the cockpit to give the pilot an indication of yaw. That is, "Is the nose of my aircraft pointing in the same direction as I am flying?" Someone back in the mists of time figured that if one was to attach a piece of string to the nose of the aircraft (where the pilot could see it) then the pilot would then be able to tell how much his/her mighty aerospace vehicle was yawing.

F-14 Yaw String
(There ya go Pinch! Finally a Tomcat on the premises.)

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, the yaw string.

So, long story somewhat shorter, string on a jet was not unheard of. But not where we were seeing it. Hanging down from the front cockpit as it were. With no one in sight, that we could ascertain.

So I followed the string up to the cockpit. 'Lo and behold there was a wrench attached to the piece of string. As I held it up for Billy to see, I could tell by the gleam in his eye that he was every bit as excited as I was. (Calm down, it wasn't that kind of excitement. Geez.)

For to find a loose tool on the flightline was the QA man's Holy Grail. It was like blood in the water to a Great White Shark. It was like a dead moose in the high country to a pack of starving wolves in the dead of winter. It was like...

(Yes, I am getting carried away with the analogies aren't I?)

As I started to climb down the aircraft boarding ladder with my trophy, I heard from the back of the arch, "Hey, what the hell are you guys doing on my jet?"

Billy and I turned to the voice and as we did, the interloper saw our hats and mumbled, "Ah crap!" Knowing that he had committed a "no no" by leaving a tool on the jet unattended and, worst of all, having been "caught" by QA.

Before we began to chastise the perpetrator of this foul deed, I recognized the guy. One of the instruments shop's best sergeants. In fact, when QA did periodic formal evaluations of maintenance personnel, this guy always scored top marks. He wasn't just good, he was what you might call, an expert.

"So Bob, what's this all about?"

Bob explained that he had been disconnecting a panel in the cockpit when the urge to urinate had overcome him. When he had started the task he had tied a piece of string to his wrench. Seems that in this particular area of the cockpit, with certain boxes removed, it was easy to drop a tool down inside the console. It was also a major task to get stuff back out because the F-4 has every cubic inch of space packed with equipment and wires. Tying a string to the wrench would make it much easier to extract, should he drop the tool.

Not only an accepted practice but one encouraged by the Wing and actually called out in a local maintenance standard. Problem was, you never leave a tool unattended. Bob had done that. But as he was answering a call of nature (a rather urgent one I guess) we cut him some slack. No harm, no foul.

Not one week later we had a similar situation.

Trundling down the flightline in our trusty IH, we spotted string. Non-yaw string string (if you get my drift). Hanging from the intake of the Number One engine. Hhmm, probably just the crew chief inspecting the engine and has a string tied to his flashlight.

But it's night. And there is no light emanating from the intake.

(Cue Jaws theme music here.)

Hhmm, me thinks, a potential violation. Code Red, Swarm, Swarm!!

Billy parks the truck and we dismount. Sauntering over to the jet, Billy says he'll look out back. As there is no one near the aircraft and (oddly enough) no toolbox in sight.

Billy returns, shaking his head, there's no one out back having a smoke or answering a call of nature (or both, maintenance guys can multi-task).

I have discovered that it's not a flashlight at the end of the string. Nope, it's a wrench. Odd, very odd.

We collect the offending lonesome tool and head back to Wing Headquarters (where our office was located).

Once there we look up the code inscribed on the wrench to see which organization owns that tool. (Each tool was inscribed with a unique organization code and a number. The numbers went with toolboxes. Each tool had its own slot in an individual tool box. For accountability and all that. Primarily to keep loose pieces of stuff from wandering around inside an aircraft. Where they became threats to lives and to Air Force property, namely the jets.)

When we had the owning organization, we climbed into the truck to drive on over and pay them a little visit. Because they, like Lucy, "had some 'splainin' to do". As we pulled out of the lot, we heard a call come over the radio to Job Control reporting a missing tool. Guess who was reporting the missing tool? Yup, same guys whose tool we had found.

Even better, they were going to back to the jet where we had found the tool to look for that very same tool. With luck, we would beat them to the jet.

We did.

This shift supervisor rolled up with his guy and saw us standing in front of the aircraft. Both of them had the old "ah crap" looks on their faces.

As they walked up, the shift super says, "So you guys must have heard the radio call about the lost tool I guess."

"What lost tool?" Billy says.

'Well, Teddy here...", the super began to explain when Billy interrupted.

"This tool?" Billy said, holding the wrench up for all to see and marvel at. (We QA types could be, perhaps, a trifle "dramatic", when given half a chance.)

Teddy and his super both looked as if they had just been told that the governor had denied their request for a stay of execution. I think the shift super envisioned himself back on the day shift with somewhat fewer stripes on his sleeve. Also a little lighter in the wallet. Not sure what was going through Teddy's head but he looked terrified.

But these guys had something in their favor. They had noticed the tool missing just moments after Teddy had returned to the shop. Sure, he should have noticed it before leaving the jet, but he did notice it missing and he did report it to his sergeant.

Who also did the right thing by reporting the missing tool to Job Control (who would then make sure that no one used the aircraft for whatever reason). A missing tool on the flightline is truly a "big deal". Typically the aircraft where the tool went missing gets a "Red X" in the aircraft forms (the 781s). That "Red X" can only be cleared by a fairly senior maintenance guy (Staff Sergeant or higher) and effectively grounds the aircraft until the "Red X" is cleared. The shift super had done the virtual equivalent of grounding the aircraft by notifying Job Control.

So, in essence, Teddy screwed up. But he discovered his own screw up and he reported his screw up through the proper channels. Ditto Teddy's supervisor. So, while losing track of the tool in the first place was bad, everybody did what they were supposed to do and the missing tool was recovered. Again, no harm, no foul.

On the other hand, the maintenance guy had left the area. Had left the jet unattended with a wrench stashed in the engine intake. Bad things happen when engines ingest anything other than air and fuel. Bad things that cost the tax payers lots of money. So what to do, what to do?

From a QA standpoint we had to file a report. We had no choice once Job Control had been informed. On the other hand, we could (and did) write the report in such a way as to make Teddy and his sergeant not look like complete idiots. Because in reality they most assuredly were not. Teddy made a mistake because he was human. He followed proper procedure and reported his mistake because he was a professional. As was his immediate superior.

Both guys did wind up having to report to the DCM and "chat" about the missing tool with that good colonel (for such he truly was). While it could not be termed a "nice" experience, it was not a "bad" experience. Teddy learned a lesson which would benefit him in the long run. His boss learned to watch his guys a bit more carefully but also got a pat on the back for "doing the right thing".

So although we wore black hats in QA, we weren't really total a-holes the bad guys. We were there, like the old saying goes, "to help". Which for the most part we did. And like I said before, the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing was a Sierra Hotel outfit. In fact, it was kind of easy being QA in the 8th. Kind of like being a cop in the nicer parts of town.

Everyone behaves.


  1. In the F-4 and many other aircraft of that era, yaw was NOT your friend. I flew several aircraft in my career and most had what were termed Bold Face emergency procedures. Aircrew had to pass a Bold Face exam every week in order to fly the following week. A Bold Face exam had only one passing grade 100%, to include punctuation. It had to be 100% verbatim. So, I took a lot of them. Which brings me to the point. The ONLY Bold Face procedure I remember is the Out of Control and Spin Recovery Procedure for the F-4. So, again, Yaw is not your friend.
    Ed Rasimus, in his second book, Palace Cobra, describes his checkout in the F-4 where magically the aircraft performed a High Angle of Attack roll while, unbeknownst to the IP in the back seat, Ed's hands were in his lap. IPs tended to "assist" the student pilot through the maneuver because the potential to actually perform the Out of Control/Spin Recovery Bold Face was fairly high. Unfortunately, the biggest contributor to Yaw in the F-4 was not the Rudder but the Ailerons. So doing what came naturally when you wanted to turn the aircraft, push the stick left or right depending on desired direction of turn, when coupled with some G could rapidly take a nice smooth flight into a wild bucking broncho ride.
    All that a long way to say the Yaw string was a nice way to determine which way you were spinning, because the turn and slip indicator in the cockpit was difficult to find when your head is banging off the canopy.

    1. So that's something new I learned today.

      I wish I would have known that back in the day, I would've impressed many a young airman.

      When I was coming up, most of the older guys knew what it was called, not what it was for.

      Then I got to work with SSgt Abbott, best trainer I ever had or knew. He explained yaw to me.

  2. A most interesting tale. QA in the heavy ground radar world wasn't NEARLY as interesting. I still am appreciating my father's admonition to "stay the Hell away from airplanes," even at this late date. And I thank you for that. ;-)

  3. I imagine that "yaw string" had a part number and was manufactured to exacting govern-mental standards by Mega Military Amalgamated Yaw String, Inc. of BFknowhere, USA. As opposed to, yannow, a large spool of twine in the hangar from the local Home Depot... ;-)

    1. No doubt. I'm also sure that the string was priced along the lines of a thousand bucks an inch!


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