Thursday, March 21, 2013

Riding the Line Truck

This is a tale of the one, and only, time in my entire Air Force career where I performed duties in direct and immediate support of flight operations. 'Tis a tale I will tell my grandchildren (and mightily bored they'll be*).

Before we begin however, there are certain details of a somewhat "technical" nature which must be addressed. (Now, now don't shy away gentle reader, this will be brief and painless. Besides which, it has pictures!) For this tale involves the AN/ASG-22 Lead Computing Optical Sight which was used on the aircraft upon which I used to labor to keep in a combat effective state.

This is the front seat, the pilot's seat, in the F-4D Phantom II jet aircraft as operated by the Air Force of the United States of America in the time period during which I was assigned to Kadena AB, Japan and Kunsan AB, Korea.

The arrow labeled "1" is pointing to the "combining glass". The "pipper**" (see picture below, not the actual F-4D sight picture but close enough) is projected upon said glass for the pilot to see as he looks towards the pointy (business) end of his (or her) mighty aerial steed. (It should be noted that the ladies did not get to fly fighters when I worked on fighters. More's the pity.)

Now the arrow labeled "2" points to the general vicinity of a little "door" in the pilot's radar scope, behind which lived one of these -

Yes, boys and girls, a simple light bulb. Which provided the illumination to project the sight image upon the combining glass. Keep this in mind as what I have just told you is critical to understanding the rest of this story!

Now one fine day in the Land of the Morning Calm (Korea), I and my comrades-in-arms were sitting around our shop awaiting the labors of the day to commence. Now my normal post was in the Radar Calibration hangar which was about 75 yards away from our main shop. As there was no "customer" in the hangar I had naught to do but wait upon the whims and desires of our tempestuous shop chief, TSgt Skip.

Don't get me wrong, Skip was an awesome guy to work for. It's just that at times he could be a bit, come si dice, "demanding". (As was his right, after all he was the boss and was responsible for ensuring the care and feeding of two squadrons worth of aircraft Weapon Control Systems - WCS.)

I suppose I should explain (briefly) the organization of the maintenance organization in an Air Force tactical fighter wing of that era. Now there were two organizations which contained aircraft maintenance troops. The Component Repair Squadron (CRS - my outfit) which was responsible for the alignment, repair and calibration of the various aircraft systems. Then there was the Aircraft Generation Squadron (AGS), or the "Others" as I liked to call them. These poor ba$tards actually worked outdoors, in all sorts of horrid weather, directly on the aircraft themselves.

While my crew and I did actually work directly on the aircraft, it was in the sheltered comfort of a hangar. Not heated for sure, but being out of the wind (especially in Korea, in the winter) was a blessing not to be sneezed at. Now the other half of our shop was called "The Mock-Up". Picture a lab-type environment with test equipment and such, surrounding an aircraft radar system mounted on a bench in the center of the lab.

Now we Radar Cal guys, if we could not align a unit in situ would dismount it and drag it down to the Mock-Up guys. Of course, they would always try to align it themselves and sometimes actually succeed. For we Radar Cal guys were considered just one evolutionary step above your common, flight-line-type knuckledragger. The Mock-Up types were lordly type folk who seldom ever dirtied their dainty hands on filthy "airplanes" and were far too fragile and precious to actually (gasp) go outside, into the elements.

Now on the bottom of the WCS food chain were the poor guys and gals who got assigned to AGS. The AGS folk worked outside, on the flight-line in any and all sorts of weather, day and night, etc. etc. That is, of the multiple places a WCS person could go, AGS was the last choice. The AGS troops were bossed around by nasty "nose-pickers" (that's what we Lords of Avionics called the hard-working, under-appreciated aircraft crew chiefs, what you aquatic types call "plane captains") and generally only had time to read the aircrew's write-up in the aircraft forms (the 781s), fire the system up, run BIT checks and then pull the part they suspected was causing the errant behavior. Normally the most-removed part was the Synchronizer (the Sync as we called it). And 9 times out of 10 it was the Sync. Normally it could be aligned and re-installed. Sometimes it had to be shipped back to the depot for repair and the Mock-Up folk would order, then issue a reconditioned Sync to go back on the jet. (The Sync is shown in the next picture.)

Normally, WCS troops were rotated from one organization to another when re-assigned from one base to another. Normally. I was somewhat unique in that I had gone from CRS on Kadena to CRS on Kunsan. My orders to Korea did say "AGS" but somehow the aforementioned TSgt Skip got them changed. I had been to Korea and worked with Skip before, on temporary duty from Okinawa. Skip knew me and trusted me. And I had demonstrated a certain knack for the Radar Calibration game. As the much loved (hated?) Coach Bill Belichick might have said, "It is what it is."

So, after that long explanation, we're back to "I and 
my comrades-in-arms were sitting around our shop awaiting the labors of the day to commence". It was then that the phone rang, Skip answered the phone, went semi-apoplectic, calmed down, said "I guess so" a number of times and then said, "When you're ready come by the shop and pick him up."

All heads came up, swiveled towards Skip with a collective "Huh?"

Skip looked directly at me, said "Grab your field jacket and come with me". Crap! The others, naturally all sniggered or sighed with relief and went back to reading "Stars and Stripes", I grabbed my field jacket.

Skip rummages in a tool box and hands me one of these -

and one of these -

It is then that my fate dawns on me... I am to "ride the line truck". I looked at Skip with a somewhat pleading look. He looked back at me, with his steely gaze, and said, "I know Sarge but I need Dave in here with me and Ted's too stupid to know what to do. You're all I've got at the moment. AGS says that it's 'our turn', I'll sort them out later. For now..."

"Got ya Boss..."

So I donned my field jacket and took up my bulb and screwdriver and awaited the arrival of "the line truck" (see next picture, it's not an Air Force van but it is exactly the same type of vehicle I was awaiting.)

The line truck arrives, I climb in. This is going to be painful. The driver, aka "the line chief" is, of course, a nose picker. The line chief is always a nose picker. It's what they do. I head to one of the bench seats in the back and settle myself. Bulb in one hand, stubby screwdriver in the other. Held aloft as if being presented to some invisible presence. The line chief notices, the van stops.

"What the Hell are you doing?"

"Just being ready chief, just being ready."

The van drives on, the line chief is muttering something about "fudge" and "WCS troops". Not sure what that was all about.

Now mind you, you should remember where the bulb is used. You should also remember the little door on the side of the pilot's radar scope, behind which the bulb lives. (If you've forgotten, go back and re-read that first bit, I'll wait here for you.)

Now the stubby screwdriver is used to open that little door, so you can swap out the little bulb, which provides the illumination source for the pilot's lead computing optical sight, which the pilot uses to drop bombs, strafe bad guys and such. So that little bulb is kind of important. It is also the only thing which WCS can easily change WITHOUT GROUNDING THE AIRCRAFT for an appreciable length of time.

Yes, the radar may be "broke dick", the Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) system may be on the fritz, but if the crew of an F-4D had an operating gun sight, they could put bombs on target with a very good chance of success. No gun sight, no launch. Fortunately, swapping out that bulb took all of five minutes, on a bad day. The poor ba$tard who had to ride the line truck for WCS seldom, if ever, got called out to the jet. Perhaps once in a thousand aircraft "goes" does a WCS guy get to show his mettle.

I'll bet you can guess what happened the day Your Humble Scribe rode the line truck.

Ten minutes into my sentence ride, a call comes in over the radio. "Aircraft such-and-such, no gun sight". The line chief responds that we're on the way. As we drive off, the chief looks at me, still holding bulb and stubby screwdriver at "present arms" and mutters, "I'll be damned..."

We arrive at the aircraft. I put on my headsets and dismount the vehicle. Over to the crew chief I go and bellow over the noise of the jet's two powerful J-79 engines, "I NEED YOU TO SHUT DOWN NUMBER ONE!" (That would be the port-side J-79, in front of which I need to climb up for to check the bulb.)

Crew chief talks to the pilot, pilot shakes his head "No". Crew chief bellows this at me, I point out that "NO ENGINE OFF, NO SIGHT FIX! TELL THE A$$HOLE THAT!" Crew chief informs the proud aviator of this simple fact of safety, no doubt tells the knight of the air just how much a J-79 costs to repair, and you see the pilot's shoulders slump, and you hear what sounds remarkably like a jet engine spooling down.

Pilot nods to crew chief, crew chief slaps me on the shoulder. And I'm off.

Striding manfully to the jet, I climb the ladder, arriving at the front cockpit, I nod to the pilot (a Major by the way, that would be the equivalent of a LCDR to you aquatic types) and turn to survey the situation with that there AN/ASG-22 Lead Computing Optical Sight, one each.

'Lo and behold and what to my wondering eyes should appear but the "pipper", proudly displayed for all the world to see. I adjusted the dimmer switch, pipper would get bright, pipper would get dim. Nothing wrong with it, nothing at all. At this point I turn to the man what be in charge of flying this here modern marvel of an aircraft and note that he is wearing something which has been forbidden by all and sundry in the aviation community whilst actually in operation of an Air Force issue F-4D Phantom II fighter jet -
Yes, what be the pride of our silk-scarved air warriors, a pair of aviator sunglasses. A pair of POLARIZED aviator sunglasses. Why were these forbidden to our mighty fighter pilots? If you were wearing these, you would NOT be able to see the pipper. I don't know the scientific reason, I just know that polarized sunglasses are verboten when in the front seat of a mighty Phantom.

So do I tell the pilot, this Major, this aerial warrior that he needs to take his sunglasses off. For they are forbidden to you. No. Of course not, where's the humor in that? What would be the point of this story? Did I think to myself, "Forgive him, for he believes that the customs of his tribe are the laws of nature!" No.

I turn to the pilot and with thumb and forefinger of my right hand, grip said offending sunglasses by the bridge and gently pull them off of our Phantom-driver's rugged visage. Leaning back slightly, to allow the pilot to see his combining glass, I bellow "CAN YOU SEE IT NOW?"

Our air warrior blanches, gives an apologetic nod of his head and holds his hand out in supplication, his silent gesture telling me he'd like his sunglasses back. I handed them to him with a stern look. He placed said sunglasses in a pocket of his flight suit and then snapped the visor of his helmet down. The visor which was designed to protect the pilot's eyes from glare and still allow him to see the gun sight. He bellows at me "THANKS SARGE, I'M AN IDIOT!"

With smiles and salutes we part ways, him to vault into the heavens and dance on silvered wings, etc. etc. Me to return to the bowels of the line truck. To return to my never ending vigil, awaiting the next time a gun sight is in distress and a pilot cannot launch. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it.

The end result was that the wing commander reissued the "no sunglasses" edict.

Oh, and I never had to ride the line truck again.

Go figure...

*Guess the movie, the actor, his character and the scene that line is from.
(Sorry,  no prizes, no glory., just the satisfaction of being a "know-it-all")
** The pipper is, in actuality the little dot in the center of the sight.
We just called the whole thing "the pipper".


  1. I like an officer who can gracefully eat some humble pie!

    Well played Sargent.

    1. Aircrew-type officers were nearly always more human than their non-flying counterparts.

  2. Once again, common sense prevails...well done.

    1. Thanks Greg. As I write these, more stories seem to come percolating up out of the soup of ancient memory. There will be more!

  3. Humility from an Air Force Pilot? I thought that only happened when in the company of a Naval Aviator or Flight Officer! HAHAHAHAHA. Sometimes I crack myself up.

    1. Ah, you aquatic types crack me up. Too funny Tuna, too funny.

  4. Heh. Pretty good. Your comments about conditions on the flightline are EXACTLY why my Ol' Man told me to "stay away from airplanes."

    1. I managed to avoid MOST of the flight-line unpleasantness in my 7 years of aircraft maintenance. So when I finally got me that "coveted" indoor job, I started to get all nostalgic about my time on the flight-line.

      Amazing the tricks the mind plays.


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

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