Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Aircraft Maintenance Weather

8th Civil Engineering Squadron
Kunsan AB, Korea, 2012
While that lovely weather event depicted above occurred long after my time in Korea, my first thought was, "Hmm, weather hasn't changed much since I was there."

I used to be an aircraft maintainer. While there is weather that no one in their right mind would fly in, many is the time we got to go out and play in weather that keeps normal folk indoors. Aircraft maintenance is very much a 365/24/7 affair. (366/24/7 for leap years.) While the aircrews have their mandated crew rest, the maintainers keep going until every bird in the wing is FMC (Fully Mission Capable). Or as close as is humanly possible. (For the careers of many an ambitious colonel who would someday like to be a general ride on the "mission capable" rate of a combat wing. Why, colonels have actually been known to lie shade the truth about such things.)

For those who don't know about such things, no wing in the history of the Air Force has ever been truthfully 100% FMC. Something is always broken. There will always be aircraft "down" for periodic maintenance. There will always be aircraft that just need one part to get them back in the air. That part usually is the one that fell off the back of the truck as it was being shipped. Or sits in a warehouse in a box with no labels which everyone walks by and says of, "I wonder what that is...".

Yes, aircraft maintenance. It's the job that never ends. And it usually doesn't matter what the weather's like. The only thing which could stop maintenance is weather that could potentially damage the aircraft. For instance, it is frowned upon to open the canopy of an aircraft when it is pouring rain (or otherwise precipitating fiercely). For there are things inside a cockpit that just don't play well with moisture. Sometimes the guy at the other end of the radio doesn't understand that.

Job Control: Come on TSgt Brown, we need those -20 checks done on those aircraft and it needs to be done TODAY! Are we going to let a little rain stop you?

TSgt Brown: It's pouring cats and dogs out here. We can't open up the canopies in this kind of weather, everything will get soaked.

Job Control: I'm ordering you to go out and do those checks. NOW!

TSgt Brown: Okay, what's your name?

Job Control: This is Senior Master Sergeant Hayes, shift super. Do we have a problem Sergeant?

TSgt Brown: Negative. I just need a name so that when someone comes out here and wants to know "What asshole told you to open up that jet?" I'll have a name to give them.

Job Control: Get on it Brown. NOW!

TSgt Brown: Okey-dokey.

It took about an hour before someone noticed three drenched WCS troops going from one jet to another, schlepping their equipment and tools through the tropical Okinawan downpour (and dragging a Dash-60 power cart with them) before a fellow in a flight suit stopped us and demanded (in a stentorian voice) "What the hell are you idiots doing to MY aircraft?"

As myself and the other troopie huddled in misery under the wing of one of the jets, we watched TSgt Brown explain to this obvious flying type dude all about SMSgt Hayes. I do believe the fellow in a flight suit's bellow of "HE SAID WHAT..." could be heard far away in downtown Tokyo.

Bottom line was that we got to pack it in and head back to the shop. Now mind you, TSgt Brown had taken great pains to keep the aircraft cockpits dry while we ran our checks. But into each and every airplane that day, a little rain had fallen. Now I don't know whether or not any of those birds had to be extensively dried out nor how long that might have taken. I do know that SMSgt Hayes received a new job. And fewer stripes to go with it.

Didn't make us feel any drier.
F-4D Front Cockpit
I know you remember our old friend, the front cockpit of the F-4D Phantom II. If you look really close, you'll see that this cockpit is kind of "torn up". Gauges/instruments missing, glare shield over the front scope is very dusty and what should be the seat pack upon which the pilot sits (and contains his survival kit and such) looks to be made of pretty shady looking canvas. Bottom line, I don't believe this picture was taken of an aircraft still in service with the Air Force. No, I think not. And no, it's not one of the aircraft we worked on in the pouring rain that day we bowed to the demands of Job Control.

But do you see that bright green little scope in the top right of the photo? That's what we always called an "ECM Scope", what it's technical name was escapes me, as many a year has passed since I worked on F-4s. But that little guy was an impediment to the removal of the pilot's radar scope. (That big thingie to the left of the ECM Scope. Sorry about all of the technical terms.)

Now the pilot's radar scope is secured by a number of bolts and has two to three cannon plugs connecting it to the rest of the Weapons Control System (two to three depending, I think, on the aircraft model and type of systems installed. But again, it's been a long time. I may be "mis-remembering" but there were at least two. One of which was behind that ECM Scope.)

Now the only way to get to that cannon plug on the right side of the pilot's scope was...

What? Oh sure, just a second...

This is a cannon plug...

Got it? Cool. Now to continue...

To disconnect the cannon plug on the right of the scope, you had to remove the ECM Scope from its bracket. Then you would reach through the bracket and disconnect the cannon plug. Then that front scope will slide right out and you can take it to the shop for repair or replacement.

So what does that have to do with the weather? Well, that bracket is just big enough for a normal sized guy (such as me) to get their arm through for to reach the cannon plug. That would be an arm clad in nothing more than what the Good Lord gave you. That's right. Skin.

If you're wearing a shirt, that's gotta come off. Of course, anything worn over the shirt would also have to come off. Now think back (or scroll up to) that lead in picture. Snow. What does one need to have snow? Well, cold for one thing. And in the winter Korea has lots and lots of "cold". Doesn't always snow, but it's always cold.

I do believe that I never, ever had to remove a front scope on Okinawa (where it never really gets cold). Nor do I think I ever had to remove a front scope in the spring, summer or fall in Korea. Nope, it was always (at least in my memory) in the winter that front scopes would malfunction.

I remember well the very last scope I ever pulled in my Air Force career. It was bone-chilling cold out there on the line. Wind was blowing like crazy and (of course) the jet was sitting outside of the whiskey arch. So there was no shelter at all. We did some troubleshooting and as I had my airman kill the power to the jet, I told him, "we're gonna have to pull that front scope". Poor kid, looked like he was about to cry. Ya know the whole, "the sarge is going to make me pull the scope, 'coz I'm just a lowly airman". Nope, that's NOT how it went down.

I had always been taught to lead by example. Many is the sh!t job I got stuck with as an airman due to "rank hath its privileges", but in my book, rank also has its responsibilities. So my airman watched amazed as my field jacket came off, followed by my fatigue shirt, followed by my long underwear top.

I climbed up the jet, pulled the front scope and soon enough we were huddled under the bird waiting for the line truck to come get us. Hadn't taken more than 15 minutes to get that scope out I'm sure. But afterwards I shivered all the way back to the shop and I swear I was still shivering the next day. Holy crap was I cold!

But my stock with the airmen in the shop went way up.

And the respect of one's troops is always nice to have. I may never have made high rank in the Air Force but I do believe my troops always had my back. I'll take their respect over glory and honors any day.

Any day.


  1. Well done on the respect front Old AF Sarg.

    As to Sgt Hayes...I love it when a story has a happy ending!

    1. Thanks Joe. And yes, happy endings for some, not for one.

  2. RHAW Scope, Radar Homing and Warning.

    And yes, leadership by example is a wonderful way to do it. Too bad so many current USAF (and probably the rest) senior officers don't follow that idea. And as I get most of the way through my second career, it doesn't seem to be all that common on the outside either.

    1. Of course, of course, of course. Geez!

      For some reason the term "RHAW Scope" was associated in my tired old brain with the Wild Weasels. Some of the F-4Cs we had on Oki were actually Weasels. Why I thought of them as RHAW and the ones on the others as "ECM" is something lost to the mists of time.

      I know that on the Weasels you could power up the RHAW Scope and run a display test on it. Cool strobes and such. Cool for me as a maintenance weenie, probably not so cool if you're in the air with gomers shooting at you!

  3. Why, colonels have actually been known to lie shade the truth about such things.

    NO! Say it ain't so! ;-)

    I agree on the respect thing, as well. That old saw about not asking your troops to do anything you wouldn't do is very good advice.

    As for flight line WX... Do I need to repeat my father's last words to me as I got on the airplane for Lackland 50 years ago? I don't? OK, then.

    1. Yup, colonels. There are good ones and then there's everyone else.

      No need to repeat your Dad's advice.

      It was painful at the time, but it makes for good war stories now neh?

  4. Good point on leadership. Always, without fail, an event or situation will occur where a leader" is in danger of stepping on his pee pee. Good old PFC McSurly can give him a heads up, or he can keep his mouth shut. Been on both sides of that one.

    1. If we're honest with ourselves, I think we all know what it's like to be on either side of that equation!

  5. That's the difference between being a leader and just having rank. Nicely done.

    1. I had an excellent Chief when I was a young airman on Okinawa. He taught me well. The dude was the poster child for "leading by example". His story will eventually be told in these spaces.

      I had some other teachers who would tweak me back into line from time to time. TSgt Skip (whom I've mentioned before) was one.


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