Friday, August 2, 2013

Things Which Go Bump On the Jet

Partially Deployed F-4 Phantom Speedbrake, Looking Forward
Partially Deployed F-4 Phantom Speedbrake, Looking Inboard
As some of you may know, sometime near the end of the Pleistocene Epoch I worked aircraft maintenance on the C and D models of the venerable F-4 Phantom II. Though now, from this long perspective, I look back on those days with a certain fondness, I have not forgotten the dangers involved in working around military aircraft. Nor the potential to do this sometimes dangerous work in the types of weather which would have kept a normal person indoors, by the fire/air conditioner (depending on the temperature), with a nice, seasonally-appropriate beverage in hand.

The dangers are even more real around military aircraft which are designed to carry (and later dispense) things which are apt to go "BOOM" also by design, or sometimes by injudicious handling practices. And in my days of yore, I had the opportunity to witness such injudicious handling practices from time to time. Also had the chance to see what could be labeled "just plain stupidity" in the presence of inanimate objects which had the rather large potential to kill or otherwise maim those unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity of "people doing stupid things around aircraft".

This, gentle reader, is such a tale.

In those photos above, you can see what the speedbrakes look like on the Phantom. There are two, one under each wing, slightly inboard and aft of the main gear struts. In the front cockpit, where the chap who flies the aircraft sits (and in those days ladies were not allowed to fly the Phantom), on the throttle quadrant there is a small toggle switch, accessible by the pilot's left pinkie finger, which will cause those speedbrakes to move.

As you might gather, these are used to help slow the aircraft down, when such a thing is desired. As I am not competent to address when that need might occur or why, I won't. Perhaps juvat or VX (both having been Phantom-drivers back in their heyday) might enlighten us someday. For now, it's not crucial to the story.

And they move with, shall we say, a certain alacrity. It's not a gradual movement like you'd see on a commercial airliner's flaps when one is in the process of either landing or taking off (for those of you who notice such things), no the movement is sudden and rather violent. Sitting on the ground you can feel the thud when they close.

So if a speedbrake was to move and you were close enough to be "touched" by said speedbrake, it would be over before you had the chance to say "Oh crap". Though you might get the "oh" out before those around the aircraft noticed that you had been either killed or maimed by the speedbrake.

Suffice to say, there were parts of the aircraft we Weapon Control Systems (WCS) types stayed away from when hydraulic pressure was applied to the jet. And when we worked on the jet, we normally applied hydraulic pressure via two hookups underneath the bird to the utility hyrdraulic system. For to cause the radar antenna to sweep back and forth. 'Twas all part of the job and some of those details would no doubt cause you to weep with boredom and frustration so I won't go into that.

Now it was customary, back when I worked the flightline, to not attempt to work on, around or under an aircraft upon which someone else was doing maintenance. In addition to being impolite and rather bad form, it was, quite simply put, dangerous as hell. Particularly an aircraft to which power was applied and which had the juices flowing in the utility hydraulic system.

So there I was, one fine day on Okinawa, sitting in the front seat of the mighty Phantom observing the pilot's front scope display while my colleague worked the radar controls in the back seat. The Dash-60 was roaring (this was used to supply electrical juice to the aircraft on the ground, it did other things but that's a "whole 'nuther story") and the Six-Cart was pumping hydraulic juice into the bird for to sweep the parabolic dish antenna what was bolted to the front of the radar package. When I saw (sensed?) something in my peripheral vision.

Head out of the cockpit, I looked around. There to my right front, about ten yards from the jet, was a maintenance van. Full of BB-Stackers it was. Now a BB-Stacker was one of the semi-official names for the airmen of munitions maintenance. The good folks who stored and transported the things which the aircraft could carry which went "BOOM" (as discussed above) and also maintained the systems onboard the aircraft which would hold and then (hopefully on the pilot's command) release the things which went "BOOM". (In general, this meant the pylons which could be bolted onto the jet to carry external stores.)

I watched the BB-Stackermobile for a moment before returning my attention to what we were working on ourselves. Then there it was again, movement in my peripheral vision. I started getting that old "WTF" feeling, so I told the guy in the back to stop what he was doing and put his hands on the canopy bow where I could see them. (Thus ensuring he wasn't playing with switches or the aircraft controls while I did my little extravehicular excursion.)

Climbing to the ground, I noticed that the BB-Stackers were all clustered around the right inboard pylon and were doing "something". All without having checked in with us first. It was then that I had an "oh crap" moment. For the leader of this merry band of weapons weenies (another name we had for folks of that ilk) was leaning on the fully deployed right speed brake. Kind of watching what his minions were doing.

Striding manfully to where Sergeant Doofus was perched I yanked him away from the speedbrake and then proceeded to shoo him and his minions away from "my jet". As he started to take umbrage with the way a lowly two-stripe airman was berating him in front of his minions (for he had three stripes, I, a mere two) I invited the young sergeant to help himself to a steaming cup of STFU and "watch the speedbrake numbnuts, watch them closely"!

All this was said at full bellow due to the noise of the Dash-60 and such. Well, I think it may have had something to do with my being "mildly upset" with the BB-Stacker sergeant as well. I have always been somewhat, er, "exciteable" at times.

At any rate, once I had his attention, I went back to the jet and climbed up the boarding ladder. Once up, I reached into the cockpit and hit that little toggle switch on the throttle quadrant. THUMP went the speedbrakes and nearly to the ground went the young Sergeant of BB-Stackers as his knees suddenly went all watery-like.

For he now realized that he had been dancing with Death while leaning on that speedbrake. I doubt very much that he would ever (ever) do THAT again. It also became known that if I was on the jet, you stayed away until such time as I would let you near. For I was young and fiercely territorial in those days.

And I preferred not to have to watch careless people get hurt / killed while doing my job. Not that I'm squeamish mind you, it's just that the investigations and testimony would have required me to wear my "nice" uniform and not my fatigues. I don't like to dress up. Unless it's for a parade. And they don't have parades for stupid people. At least not back in my day, not in this country. But you do have to dress up for inquiries and such.

I like to avoid those. Then and now.


  1. Ah, the military environment is chock full o' hazards to life and limb... and it ain't just on the flight line... I have a few tales about high voltage, bypassed interlocks, and dumb-asses. Still and even, this is a GREAT story!

    I will, however, take issue with your "And they don't have parades for stupid people" statement.

    They don't?

    1. Well, I would stress that I said "not back in my day, not in this country". But then again, I'm sure you could pull up an example of that too.

      Oh and Buck, next time, please warn me what's at the other end of a link. So I can have my seldom used airsickness bag handy. Even that a$$hat's image makes me nauseous. Literally...

  2. Speedbrakes, intakes, and loaded weapons... The deadly triumvirate... And then there were the stupid s!!ts that walked through the jet blast...

    1. The first three I respected and avoided when possible.

      Walking through jet blast? Um, no thank you.

      Inattention can definitely get you killed.

  3. Well, I'll take up your challenge for why you would want to deploy the speed brake in flight. In flight, the only time I usually deployed it was to slow down enough to deploy the landing gear in preparation for landing. For whatever reason, most maintainers got a little "tetchy" when one of us pilot folks forgot to lower the rolly thingys before placing the jet on the runway, go figger.
    Some guys would try to sucker an adversary in close then ram the throttles to idle, deploy the speed brake and then pull max g available to try and force an overshoot. It would sometimes work in a 1 v 1 fight, but if tried in a multi v multi fight, almost certainly got you killed by either the guy you were trying to overshoot, or his wingman.
    The only other time I opened them in flight was to deploy chaff. Prior to the Reagan buildup, when most of the fighter force was upgraded with chaff and IR dispensers, the only chaff capability was to stick cigarette sized boxes of chaff in the speed brake and then deploy them if needed in a fight. Obviously only a one time deal, and I'm not positive it was ever tested to see if it had any effect at all on an incoming missile.

    1. Thanks juvat!

      And there you have it ladies and gentlemen, the testimony of an expert.

      Speed brake as chaff dispenser, fascinating.

      I remember painfully well the Carter years. I remember the Reagan years with something approaching unbridled joy.

      Those were the days...

  4. Think every branch has the saying, "Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Airman proof." Always, there was a volunteer out to prove everybody wrong.

  5. My only up close and personal story about an F-4 dates back to 1976 when I was an avionics troubleshooter for VAW-115 aboard the Midway. The cat crew had a good relationship with us, and I got to hook up a VF-161 F-4N for a cat shot. Did the Air Force models still have the hooks on the inboard portion of the wings where the bridle hooked up for the cat? Testing the bridle for security when the bird is at mil power in a rush! (If you watch video of an F-4 cat shot that's where the green shirts on either side do the high kick while hanging on the bridle, then run clear.) You hear the sound through your teeth, and when everyone is clear and they go into burner it feels like a punch in the chest. That much power from just a few feet away is awesome. I wanted to hook up the hold back fitting, which was about 3 feet in front of the exhausts, but never did get the chance. Good Times!

    1. I don't recall the bridle hooks on our jets. But yeah, being near a Phantom when she's got the bit in her teeth is pretty awesome.

      Pure, raw power.

  6. Great story about my favorite American fighting machine. More please!


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