Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Tales from the Ramp - Boarding Ladders

For those who are new here (or have been around for awhile but weren't really paying attention) I spent 24 years in the United States Air Force. From May of 1975 to May of 1999. And for the first eight years or so I was in aircraft maintenance. Specifically, Weapons Control Systems on the F-4C and F-4D Phantom. I look back on those years with a great deal of affection.

Funny isn't it, the way the mind plays tricks on you? I mean seriously, I look back with affection on boiling under the tropical sun on Okinawa and in the Philippines? Freezing my arse off in the Korean winter?

Walking a mile from the bus stop to my shop in a driving snowstorm because the "weather is too bad to run the buses" on base. (Though the Korean civilian bus had no trouble at all making it's way to the base from where I lived.) I miss that?

Standing under the overhang at the chow hall at Kadena waiting for the rain to slow down before we walked the quarter mile back to the shop after lunch, the rain coming down so hard that visibility is maybe, just maybe ten feet. And that's if you really, really concentrate. The rain coming down so hard we could barely hear the Phantom trying to find the nearby runway. Until he broke out of the gloom maybe, just maybe ten feet above where we're standing. Gear down, looking for all the world like a lost goose searching for his flock.

Then being deafened as the pilot no doubt craps his flight suit when he realizes, "that ain't the runway and oh crap the ILS is way off" and he shoves the throttle past the detents and goes into burner, rather than become the lead article in next month's Flying Safely Magazine.

I miss that?

Well, actually I do. Of course, in those days I was young and absolutely convinced that I was immortal. Nowadays I know better. Sort of.

But I have a few stories from those days which I have shared in these spaces in the past and will share in the future and...

Oh yeah, I've got one today.

The F-4 is a big beast for a fighter. Not as big as some fighters but bigger than many. I mean you had squat to "walk" under an F-4, whereas a tall fellow could amble right on underneath an F-15 without mussing his hair. Much. But big enough she was, the F-4 Phantom II. Big enough.

Now actually getting into an F-4 could be a bit of a chore, if the planets didn't align quite right and if you had somehow managed to piss off the crew chief (plane captain for you nautical types).

Now the crew chief is the fellow or gal who actually "owns" the aircraft. It's worth noting that the aircrew will get their names painted on a jet, someday. But it's not necessarily the jet they fly all the time. Because there is another name painted on that bird, sometimes two names. The name of the crew chief (always) and sometimes the assistant crew chief. And that is his (or her) aircraft. They own it in a very real sense.

The crew chief is responsible for ensuring that the aircraft is prepared for it's intended use, flying. They coordinate maintenance and generally try to make sure that the number of successful landings equal the number of take-offs. And a successful landing is most certainly NOT "any landing you can walk away from". No. No. No. The jet has to be reusable. As in, can still fly.

There are any number of landings I've seen that a pilot would consider successful. He/she survived and was able to walk away. But the jet wasn't really flyable anymore. Some could be repaired, but only at great expense to the taxpayer. Like the D-model on Okinawa which landed, then had the left main gear collapse.

She veered off the runway and wandered into the grass. Where the nose gear decided, "I didn't sign up for this all-terrain crap" and also collapsed. Which caused the nose of the jet to burrow into the mud. Which really shredded the radome (the fiberglass nose covering the radar, see below), plowed a lot of dirt into and around the radar components...

And put some serious scratches into an otherwise perfectly serviceable paint job.

Yes, the aircrew wobbled walked away from that one. The jet was eventually repaired. But was not immediately reusable. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

The big black pointy thing in front is (in technical terms)
what we maintenance types called "the radome".
(Sometimes the aircrew called it the "what's that?"
True story. Seriously. Okay, one time.)

Then there was the Clark AB (Philippines) F-4E (visiting us in Korea) which lifted off from Kunsan AB and wasn't so lucky. One engine decided that, rather than just have flames come out the back end, wouldn't it be neat to have flames come out the side as well?

Our intrepid airmen, after scorching the side of our runway for quite some distance, decided that the fire coming out of the back AND side of the engine wasn't really so neat after all.

With not much airspeed and just enough altitude to just barely loft their dying steed into the nearby Yellow Sea, our brave aircrew decided to do a Martin-Baker let down. That is, they ejected from the aircraft.

While it was something they were able to walk away from (after swimming some distance that is) and could be considered (from one point of view) a "successful" landing, the jet was most certainly not flyable, nor repairable. I know, I saw what was left littering the floor of MY hangar. Which was used for the mishap investigation. Which forced me, and my crew, to work outdoors for a period of time.

Fortunately, the weather was nice.

So I see I have wandered way off course. What started as one tale has turned into this rather long dissertation on unsuccessful (from a maintenance viewpoint) landings.

What started this was that bit, way up above, about "pissing off the crew chief". Now while having a landing mishap which would "ding" or "damage" the bird, certainly 
would piss off the crew chief, maintenance never actually flew the aircraft. Heavens no. We had to find other ways to piss off those lofty personages.

But we did, sometimes, make disparaging remarks about some of the aircraft. Sometimes the less enlightened among us would make said remarks around the crew chief. Ya know, the owner of the aircraft. Very often they would take it personally.

Really, you ask? It's just a machine. Why would the crew chief get mad at his aircraft being insulted.

Let me put it this way. Let's say Sergeant Gonzo walks up to you and says, "Hi, that is one ugly kid you've got there. I'll betcha he's stupid too!"

Piss you off? Sure it would. Now let's say Sergeant Gonzo walks up to Sergeant Dude, crew chief of aircraft tail number 7680 and says, "So does that flying piece of dog crap of yours have power on it yet? Or should we just tow it out to the target range?"

Same effect. Pissed off parent, pissed off crew chief. "Same same GI", as we used to say in Korea.

So it came to pass that occasionally, one of my brethren may have made such a remark within ear shot of a crew chief. Word would spread and soon the crew chiefs would make their point. Eventually you would have to crawl to them and "beg their Lordships' pardon". But in the meantime you might have the following happen to you. Maybe...

But first a few graphics.

The boarding ladder.
Spindly, wobbly, no fun when wet.

In this photo we see a real ladder. Which the crew chief would put up for the aircrew.
And if they were well-behaved, he/she "might" leave up for maintenance types.
If the crew chief was feeling all neighborly and friendly like.

So let's just say you've referred to some crew chief's noble bird as an "effing piece of shite" or maybe even referred to his/her mighty fighter aircraft as "a hangar queen, fit only for spare parts". In other words, you have somehow pissed off, annoyed or otherwise messed with a crew chief.

Then you get sent out to fix this person's aircraft. Upon arrival, there is no fancy ladder as shown just above. Nope, all you see is this -

No fancy ladder, canopies closed and no power unit.
(But typically not parked on the grass, that would get the Wing Commander's attention.)

So now what?

Well, first of all, you get on the radio and ask (nicely) for a power unit to be brought to the aircraft. Then, while you waited, you prepped the bird as much as you could.

First a walk around, all safety struts present on the landing gear, tail hook safed? Check.

Okay, time to deploy that built in spindly, wobbly boarding ladder. (And of course, it's probably starting to rain at that very moment.)

For which there is a button, see below -

Now that button is inside the little door flap of the second step of the built in boarding ladder. You push the door open (be careful, it is spring loaded) and inside there is a button. A big metal button. Which might or might not be easy to depress. When you do manage to depress it...

Oops, I should have mentioned that when you push that button, the bottom two steps of the ladder will fall out of the jet. Did I mention that they're made of metal, that they're heavy and they deploy quite quickly?

Now imagine that you are standing, facing the jet with your right hand at shoulder height pressing on that button I mentioned. Now I will tell you that the bottom rung of that fast deploying metal ladder will impact you in the groin area. Not really enough to cause permanent damage (well I guess it depends on how tall you are) but it will be enough of an impact to, shall we say, get your attention. Enough so that you'll never, ever, do that again.

It's one of those right of passage things. The flightline can be a cruel and unforgiving place. You want sympathy? Become an admin.

So now the boarding ladder is deployed. Your groin area has stopped aching and it's time to climb the ladder and open the canopies. On the upside, it has stopped raining. On the downside, the side of the jet is wet. Probably slippery as well. So be careful.

Now in the photo above, note the label "Buttons used to open the canopies." There are two, one for the front cockpit, one for the aft. You always open the front cockpit first. Why? Because it's there. Also it now provides something to hang onto as you dance on top of the vari-ramp. The vari-ramp is that thing with the red star on it, you can vary it's position to control the airflow into the engine. Well, you can't, the throttle settings actually control it. But as the pilot moves the throttle...

Belay that. We're not here for a flying lesson. Maybe someday, not today.

So you need to push the forward button to open the front canopy. First thing you notice is that this button does not want to be pushed. It's stubborn. If you do it wrong you can really mess up your thumb or fingers. Sometimes all of them, if the button is really stubborn and you're not very bright. Not saying that's ever happened to me. Not saying that it hasn't either.

So let's say this is a good button, depresses real easy-like. In a perfect world one hears a "poof" and then the canopy raises up to it's full open position because the crew chief has kept the pneudraulic system pressurized.

Oh wait, that's right. You pissed off the crew chief.


So what you hear is a slight pop, as the canopy unlocks. Note that I didn't say "as the canopy opens". You need air pressure to do that and, like I said, you pissed off the crew chief.

So now you climb up, left foot in the top step, right knee on top of the vari-ramp and with bodily strength and will power you man-handle that big, heavy canopy into the fully opened position.

Now with your right shoulder under the canopy rim (provided you haven't fallen off the jet yet) you reach in for the safety lock which is a red strut which will keep the canopy open. Provided of course the crew chief left it on the pilot's seat. Sometimes they might slide down onto the cockpit floor, then you gingerly crawl into the cockpit (gently lowering the canopy so as to not to crush one's skull with it) then lifting the canopy back up, attaching the safety strut, sinking the safety pin home and thinking, "Ah crap, now I have to open the back seat."

So you manage. Sometimes the front seat is the easiest (oddly enough) and it's the aft canopy that tries to cripple you. I have this right knee that pretty accurately predicts the weather.

Slippery jet. Heavy canopy. Back seat, I slipped. Managed to not drop the canopy on my fingers, did manage to slam my right knee into the jet.


I'm all better now. Except when it rains. Which I know about a day or two in advance.

All thanks to the F-4D and the sergeant I worked with who questioned the aerial integrity of one crew chief's jet.

Oh well. Stuff happens.

H/T to fellow Lexican Robin Lee, who posted the following photo on Facebook. Which brought back memories. No, Navy F-4s don't normally fly with the boarding ladder deployed. No, hitting the pickle button to drop bombs does not deploy the boarding ladder.

I'm guessing someone pissed off a plane captain...


  1. So what type of Phantom Phixer becomes a Crew Chief? Naval Aviation maintenance is coordinated by the Flight Deck Chief(s) and Maint. Control so we don't have a single guy who "owns" the jet. Plane Captains (E-3's most likely) are responsible for prepping of the jet, but only the servicing, not the maintenance.

    1. Back in my flight line days, Crew Chief was an actual job with it's own Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC). The Line Chief (no doubt similar to your Flight Deck Chiefs) was usually a crew chief, though a senior member of that tribe. We did have Job Control who would dispatch crews to the jets to fix certain things, but the crew chiefs normally kept a weather eye on all these goings on. They kept the aircraft forms in order (the 781s), made sure the jets got serviced (fuel, air and what have you) and did the initial pre-flight before the crew arrived. There were instances of pilots having so much trust in their crew chiefs that the crew's pre-flight was a formality, really just a walk around.

      The crew chief would assist the crew in strapping into the jet and then watch the pilot cycle ("stir") the controls before guiding the pilot out of his/her jet's parking spot and down the taxiway off to the arming area. The crew chief would pop the crew a sharp salute as the jet headed out.

      I guessed I'd always assumed that plane captains were like that. I guess there are similarities but (as I recall) the crew chiefs were kinda the glue that tied everything together out on the line (or ramp as we'd sometimes call it). They were out there, finger on the pulse. Job Control only knew what was reported to them over the radio and sometimes via land line. Even they would rely on the crew chiefs to keep things squared away and headed in the right direction.

  2. That was a great education. I don't know when I'll ever have opportunity to use the knowledge I just acquired, but I certainly learned it in an entertaining way. Good job. I enjoyed it.

    1. Thanks Suldog. (Hey, you never know when this knowledge might come in handy. Okay, yeah, probably not.)

  3. From personal experience, I can verify every detail in this post as absolute fact! Just to add a small detail, the button to deploy the ladder is in the first step, so that when you're descending from the cockpit your foot will deploy the ladder the rest of the way. It being difficult to descend headfirst and deploy it by hand.
    We had a back seater at Kunsan, that had been there for about 6 months on his first F-4 assignment, walked out to the jet and there was no boarding ladder. I was doing the walk around, and he was going to get the back seat ready. I get all the way around the jet and am coming around the left wing and see him trying to chin himself up on the variramp and get his boot up into the intake. I didn't say anything, but simply walked up stood slightly to the left of the steps and pushed the button. Kachunk, Kachunk! He looks down at me and goes "what's that?". Another classic Doofer book entry!

    1. P.S. His callsign was immediately changed to "Steps"

    2. Okay, just spray checked the monitor.

      Thanks Juvat, it's those little details which help make the story come alive.

      "Steps", of course.

    3. Oh, for those keeping score at home: "kachunk, kachunk" is the sound the ladder makes as it deploys. Holy crap did that bring back memories!

  4. Wow--great pics (Ritchie AND Olds birds) and great stories...and now I've got something new to try the next museum that I visit that has a Phantom on static display. ;-)

    1. Just mind where you stand. If you feel pain in your lower regions, you did it wrong.

  5. I'm CONSTANTLY reminded of the Ol' Man's wisdom concerning aircraft and the places they congregate. (You do know about which I speak, right?)

    Yet still, the story was well-told and something MUCH better experienced second-hand. ;-)

    1. But just think of all the things you missed out on!

      Oh wait, I think that was your point. Wasn't it?

      Thanks Buck.

    2. I missed out on several social diseases, too. We don't harbor any kind thoughts about not experiencing THAT.

    3. Excellent point Buck, excellent point.

  6. Heh... Good stories!!! And that vari-ramp IS one slick sumbitch!!!

    1. I still have nightmares about that slippery bastard!

  7. God how I hated that boarding ladder! Being a TOWERING 5' 8 1/2" kinda guy the stretch up the side--especially when I was a GIB--was always a tad strenuous.

    1. Geez Virgil, you're taller than me. I practically needed a ladder to get to the ladder.

      Most of our work was done in the back seat, so I know exactly what you're talking about. A tad strenuous and, at times, a tad hazardous!

  8. I was WCS F4-E/C/D from 1969 to 1980 when I cross trained to F-16s. I loved the tales from the past. Brought up many memories of my own experiences on the flight line. Like sitting in a closed cockpit with no power for two hours because of a sudden thunderstorm that just wouldn't go away. Gotta keep those cockpits dry.

    1. Stuck in the cockpit? For two hours? Damn! No fun!

      Where were you stationed? We might have some mutual acquaintances. (And your name definitely rings a bell...)

    2. Steve you're on FB right? The WCS page?

  9. First week on the job MG -12 / F-89J (1958) Supervisor said Joseph , my last name, go to the shop and get a box of Range Gate Markers and come back ASAP. Got to the shop 1 Mile each way asked some A/!C where they kept the RGM he almost fell over laughing. The whole Radar shop laughing their butts off at me.
    For non Radar types going to get a box of Range Gate Markers is like being sent to get a bucket of Wind.

    1. Excellent. We sent a guy back to the shop to get the "keys" to the jet. Because it was "locked".

      Ah, to be young again.

  10. I am researching material for my book based on my twenty-five years Air Force. Entered enlisted, retired commission (mustang). Knew only fighters - F-105, F-4, F-111 in my career. Served with Olds, Risner, James, and many others. Never did anything that I loved so much, never met an aircraft that I did not love, never met an airman (enlisted or commissioned) that I did not like, and never felt a part of something much bigger than myself in those twenty-five years. Served six years throughout Southeast Asia - Vietnam, Okinawa, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. I look forward to reading your blog, who knows, might learn something, might be able to offer something. Press...

    1. Thanks for stopping by Sir, welcome aboard.

      Look forward to hearing from you!

  11. 308th Emerald nights Homestead Fl. 81-85


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

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