Thursday, August 4, 2016

Hydraulic Fluid and Cigars (A Black Hat Tale)

A long, long time ago I was (somewhat) gainfully employed as an avionics maintenance Quality Assurance (QA) inspector for the mighty 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, also known as The Wolf Pack. Juvat and I were contemporaries in that outfit for one year. He flew Phantoms, I fixed them. Well, I fixed the Weapons Control System (think radar and gun sight), I couldn't help you if a wing fell off, an engine broke, or a control surface jammed. I could take note and recognize such things, just couldn't mend them once they had gone south.


I have, no doubt, alluded to how I wound up in QA, assigned directly to Wing Headquarters, no longer a squadron guy but kind of a staff wienie. Kind of, as we spent most of our evenings on the flightline and not sitting in our office. (Office = boring, flightline = exciting.) Still and all, I can lay claim to having been a staff puke in a fighter outfit. Not something to be proud of, but there it is, that's just me being upfront and honest about my past. (Other "Black Hat Tales" are here, here, and here. For those with an interest in ancient history.)

I worked with a tech sergeant during the six or so months I was exiled assigned to QA. It grieves me that I cannot remember his name. I remember what he looked like and I remember that by trade he was an Avionics Ground Equipment (AGE) technician. But his name escapes me. So by convention (which means I assigned him the moniker "Billy" in one of those links above) I refer to him as Billy. TSgt Billy to be precise. Not Billy Stanphill, who was on Okinawa when I got there, first he was a TSgt then he was promoted to MSgt and was famous for having the most starch in a set of fatigues that I have ever seen. Before or since. MSgt Stanphill could sleep standing up as his uniform was about as flexible as a sheet of plywood. No, not that Billy, who also smoked unfiltered Pall Malls, the man was about as old school as you can get without actually being able to say he worked on B-17s during the "Big One," ya know, Dubya Dubya Deuce. (WWII that is...)


TSgt Billy and I would climb into the six passenger International Harvester pickup truck (painted a delightful shade of Air Force blue) assigned to our shop and head out to the flightline as soon as all of the day shift types had left the building. Again, the action was out on the flightline and our job was to ensure that only the highest maintenance standards were observed within the mighty Wolf Pack, the finest fighter wing of all time.

(We would hang around while the day shift wonks were still there pretending that, like them, we adored manuals, regulations, and paperwork. As soon as they left, it was off to where the real work was done. Not exactly proclaiming "FTS" as we headed out the door but damned close to it. Only as I grew older did I reconcile myself to sitting behind a desk. Out of the weather, where it was warm in the winter, and cool in the summer. Oh wait, it was an overseas base so it probably was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. It was a hardship tour I tell you, our golf course only had nine holes. It was harsh man, harsh.)


Now as I only worked in QA for a few months (again it was so long ago that I scarce remember) the number of "Black Hat Tales" is pretty limited. This one may be the last, unless some long hidden (perhaps suppressed) memory bubbles up from the primordial ooze which is my ancient memory. So let's get to it, shall we?

Now the first story involves hydraulic fluid. Ye Olde F-4D Phantom had three completely independent hydraulic systems: PC-1, PC-2 and the Utility System. (PC = Power Control.) Now that info I have straight from the Dash 1 (the Air Force version of the NATOPS), specifically Technical Order 1F-4C-1 (which covers the C, D and E models of the mighty Rhino). That info is, drum roll please, on page 1-20. One of those "Not Intentionally Left Blank" pages in the T.O. (hhmm, T.O.s, there's another story right there, POCIR).

Now those hydraulic systems powered all sorts of things on the jets, but for this story we're only concerned with the control surfaces which the hydraulic systems powered. Without hydraulic fluid, those controls would (as I recall) be hard to move. Back in those days the controls still had mechanical linkages but needed that hydraulic boost not found in earlier aircraft. Remember this was and remains a big, robust aircraft. No hydraulic pressure was referred to as "Not A Good Thing." I'm sure Juvat still recalls the bold face procedures (verbatim) for loss of hydraulic pressure.

Anyhoo... (Yes, I'm using that a lot today, it's the written version of "um" and "ah." As utilized by all the best professional speakers.)

TSgt Billy and I were parked out on one of the taxiways of Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, watching the jets taxiing back to their homes. As one mighty Phantom rolled on by, I noticed a rather steady stream of liquid spewing from the port inboard leading edge slat.


I said to Billy, "I say old chap, hasn't rained in a while, has it?"

"Why no, dear colleague, it has not. Why do you ask?"

"Well, I see yon flying machine pissing mass quantities of liquid from the wing. If it ain't rain, I reckon it's something those daring young men in their flying machine might want to know about."

"Hhmm, yes, let's follow them home."

So we did, noting the trail the Phantom was leaving behind. Perhaps for to find its way back to the runway. Probably not, I mean the jet's a two seater. The GIB (guy in back) is supposed to navigate amongst his other chores. Though some pilots refer to the GIB as the "self loading 200 pound ballast" that's somewhat less than flattering. Of course, GIBs have terms of endearment for their pilots as well -
  • stick actuator
  • nose gunner
  • driver
  • chauffeur
I'm sure there are more. But I digress...

Billy and I pull over next to the aircraft's parking spot in front of the whiskey arch and wait for the aircrew to shut the engines down. We note that there is no crew chief in sight, no doubt he is otherwise engaged. Or maybe he was there but we didn't notice him. (I use the masculine terms exclusively here because lady aircrew were non-existent in fighters back then and female crew chiefs hadn't been invented yet. Just wanted to point out that I'm not being sexist. We are very freaking inclusive here at The Chant.)

As the aircrew dismounted and climbed down to once again embrace the surly bonds, we called out to them...

"Say there Lords of the Air, is thy mighty war machine meant to urinate hydraulic fluid like that?" (For I was now close enough to recognize the reddish liquid, which burns nicely by the way.)

The back-seater turned to observe what the enlisted swine were caterwauling about then muttered, "Sweet Jesus..." and seemed to go all weak in the knees. The pilot turned as well, beholding the puddle beneath the wing, he too got all religious, "Holy shit!"

We left them to their business, I mean they were safely back on earth and all but we sensed a gathering storm. Knowing that discretion was the better part of valor, we quit the field and went elsewhere. Perhaps Juvat can postulate as to what the heck was up with that jet. We gathered (though we be non-flyers) that it "wasn't good" and that some maintenance person would possibly have his or her arse handed to them later that day. As we would not be doing the arse handing, we departed to seek greener pastures.


Oh yes, I promised a story about cigars as well. That one is much shorter and involves our captain of Quality Assurance (that is, our OIC or officer in charge, that is, "our boss") and another leaky aircraft.

Seems that late one night there was some sort of brouhaha out on the flightline which involved ground equipment, an F-4D Phantom and JP-4. That last bit was the stuff the Phantom used to make loud noises and go fast. Jet fuel, back then we used JP-4. Kinda smells like kerosene. Point is, you wanted that stuff contained and not just floating around the ramp.

Seems someone had managed to spill JP-4 near or on a jet, seems there may have been an instance of that spill being caused by a piece of ground equipment colliding with a wing tank, full of fuel AND attached to the wing of a jet. So people were quite excited. As some of those people were important, it was decreed that Quality Assurance should respond forthwith and put the fear of God into those responsible for this mess.

I mean, we wore black hats, so by definition we were "the bad guys." It was part of our job to hold impromptu "come to Jesus" meetings with sinning maintenance types.

As Billy had done this sort of thing before (and he was a TSgt, I was a lowly, yet exalted SSgt at the time) he thought it might be a good idea to call our captain. So we headed back to the office, called the captain's quarters and told him to "come on down" and we'd give him a ride out to the scene of the crime.

Rather quickly the captain showed up dressed as if he was ready for a night on the town. I had no idea that our lord and master was such a snappy dresser.

When we arrived at the scene, where there were many flashing lights and people of importance standing about and gesticulating to the gathered audience, we found a spot to park (in the dark so we could materialize out of the gloom like the evil bastards we were) and sauntered over to where that most holy of holies, the Deputy Commander of Maintenance (DCM), his Lordship, a full colonel, and owner of all things maintenance, was berating some poor lieutenant. A second lieutenant mind you, the poor kid looked like he'd graduated from high school, er, I mean college, only the week before.

When we arrived, the DCM turned to see who it was and seemed rather pleased to see "his" black hats on the scene, no doubt ready, willing, and able to start crucifying the miscreants right then and there. Then, the half smile melted from His Holiness's face as he beheld our captain, in his silk shirt, snappy slacks, and penny loafers, cigar to his lips, matches at the ready...

Standing, mind you, not ten yards from a wing tank busy pissing jet fuel all over the ramp...


Our dear captain, fairly new to the place and as innocent and pure as the driven snow could only stutter, "Sir, I, uh..."

I leaned over to our leader, our mentor, and our guide and said, sotte voce "Sir, you might want to NOT light that cigar. I mean, that IS fuel over there."

Before the DCM died of apoplexy or, on the other hand, disemboweled our poor, unwitting, captain, said captain looked at the matches in his hand, then jerked the cigar from his lips, exclaiming -


At that the DCM seemed to relax and return to his earlier victim. I don't think the captain hung around long but started walking back to his quarters.

Yes, when he was a safe distance away, I saw the flare of a match and the glow of a cigar. I could have sworn I heard something about "fudge" as well.

But I could be wrong.

After all, it was an awfully long time ago...

301st TFW F-4D landing at Nellis AFB, NV, 1985. (Source)


  1. The bold face for total loss of hydraulics is the simplest of them all
    1. Eject.

    If the leak was as bad as you say. Total hydraulic failure was a definite possibility, thereby ruining that crews takeoff to landing ratio.

    1. They seemed rather happy to be back on the ground...

    2. If you've got partial loss and are making a straight-in emr approach to the runway it's a always good idea to remember to deploy the RAT! (not that it isn't in the checklist :) )

    3. Hhmm, I'm pretty sure the RAT wasn't deployed, the crew seemed surprised at the leak.

  2. That second tale brings to mind the cigar scene from "Strategic Air Command" where General Hawkelemay fires one up next to a fueling bomber.

    "Doesn't the general know the plane might explode?" an enlisted fellow asks Dutch Holland (Jimmy Stewart).

    "It wouldn't dare," says Holland.

  3. Seem to remember, from my smoking days, the craving for nicotine hit hardest when indulging could get you killed.

    1. JP-4 isn't that flammable, anyway even in hot weather. I've seen guys put out cigarettes in it.

    2. One time I saw somebody do that was at Nellis in the summertime, although we were using JP-8 or something at the time.

    3. The actual fuel isn't that flammable, the idea was always "No Smoking near the jet" or on the ramp anywhere.

      Certainly not with fumes in the air.

    4. Smoking and fuel don't mix. Ever.

    5. I think the 105 had a cigar ashtray in the cockpit. But that was back when your body was your business.

    6. It probably did, I think General Olds was known for lighting up in the air as well.

  4. Cigara stories...
    The Skipper smoked the most godawfullest smelling things ever.
    They smelled bad before he even lit up.

    The only time we ever lit up a cigar in CIC was to mask the aroma of the results of seasickness ...or in some cases to induce seasickness.

    Whenever a shipmate's spouse had a baby, even worse cigars than the Skipper's were somehow produced.

  5. Re Bruce Brews, neither is gasoline flammable. It's the vapors of all that type of fluid that is flammable. In most cases, highly so.

    Paul L. Quandt

  6. Old Charlie/Mike model Huey had dual hydraulic systems and pumps but a common reservoir. Controls were unmovable without hydraulic pressure so a nitrogen accumulator was provided to "guarantee" four control movements when activated. The fear of that hydraulic line piercing golden BB was never far out of mind. Another story, during my tour in Korea in '87, one of our female helicopter pilots was dating the CO of The Wolf Pack, Lt Col "Nordie" N********* (they later married, he retired and became the "spouse" as she stayed on active duty). I had free reign of the C-12s so I did a lot of weekend "training flights" between Kunsan AB and Seoul AB (K16). Flights seemed to occur mostly on Friday and Sunday evenings. Strange, that. regards, Alemaster

  7. I suspected that name might have "rung a bell" Juvat. regards, Alemaster


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

NOTE: Comments on posts over 5 days old go into moderation, automatically.