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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Critical Thinking

by: Kersley Fitzgerald

Last week, we delved shallowly into the world of flightline maintenance. This week, it’s all about the backshop.

At the time I was in the Air Force (a million years ago), the backshop fell under the Logistics Group Commander, whereas flightline maintenance belonged to a flying squadron and, therefore, the Operations Group Commander. What does this mean? It means the backshop was commanded by a maintainer and had a maintainer as a group commander. (Or at least a loggie. Could have been supply or fuels or acquisitions. Still, it wasn’t a pilot.)

The backshop is a kinder, gentler maintenance organization. Not too many people, if any, on mid shift. Most troops get to work inside hangars or shops. More time for burger burns and prairie dog hunts. (Or practicing your welding skills on your trailer-building side-job. Or making new stickers for your skis using AGE’s Corel Draw label maker. Or etching loons into glass for your mom using speed tape and the machine shop’s sand blaster*. Or convincing the one gear-head in a squadron full of aircraft maintainers to change the shocks in your F-150 for a case of beer.**)

Let me see how many shops I can remember after all these long years:

- Propulsions: engines
- Avionics: wires for flight controls as well as, strangely enough, tires
- Sheet metal: sheet metal, corrosion control, and painting
- Machine shop: welding, sand-blasting—the funnest shop (see glass etching above)
- Non-Destructive Inspection (aka: NDI): using camera probes and x-ray to look for cracks in fan blades and airframe (see: C-141s’ wing spars)
- Life Support: parachutes and nuclear blast curtains (in combat aircraft squadrons this would include ejection seats)
- Aerospace Ground Equipment (aka: AGE): power carts, staircases, high-reaches, light carts, etc.
- Fuels: tearing open fuel cells and trying not to pass out from the fumes
- Inspections: This is killing me. This is a really big flight that completes several major inspections, and I can’t remember the names of any of them. PHASE! That’s the big one.
- Admin and training
- Shoot, then there was the flight that I was actually in for several months whose name I can’t remember. They did TOs, computers, and CAMS—Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance System—a worldwide, networked database for maintenance actions.

The three-bay hangar at Malmstrom AFB, MT, opened up a few months after I got there. Three years later, they took out the planes and brought in a Red Horse unit. The missile wing uses the bays for ceremonies.

Is life better in the backshop? If you enjoy regular hours, fewer deployments, and the ability to dig into the technical aspects of your career field while still having time to make model airplanes you hang from the ceiling, then yeah. If you prefer the rush of a last-minute sortie, lots of bullets on your EPR***, and the promise of TDY pay, then maybe not.

Most of the crew chiefs in the backshop were assigned to inspections. The rest of the shops were manned by specialists. There were several (I seem to think three) major inspections the backshop performed according to flight hours or calendar days. PHASE was the biggie. It generally lasted a week and started with giving the plane a shower. Nothing like gearing up in a plastic suit, slathering on the Citri Clean, and manning a hot water fire hose for a couple of hours. All aircraft have to be rinsed after flying over salt water (I wonder how this would translate to space…), but this was the big one. It was hot and dirty and nasty, and they did it once a week.

After the bath, the swing shift removed the panels. Then there were about two days of crew chiefs and specialists coming in to inspect, then two days (hopefully only two days) of fixing what’s broke and sealing her up. All this while the flightline is yelling, asking why you can’t have it finished in three days instead of five because we really, really need the airframe!

Probably the biggest inspection done in the backshop was the Refurb. Unfortunately I can’t remember much about it. I think it had to do with painting and corrosion repair. Crew chiefs could install optional TCTOs (like hanging curtains from the bunks and solid doors for the bathroom). It was the biggest inspection next to depot.

The biggest job I saw, and the one that got the most attention, was when the vertical stabilizer on a tanker had to be replaced. That’s usually a depot-level job that our guys completed perfectly.

Mike Rowe filmed a “Dirty Jobs” episode on fuel cells. (“Fuel cell” refers both to a single bay in an aircraft that holds fuel and the hangar in which the jobs are performed.) The tanks in the wings of a tanker are within the struts and spars. But the fuel in the body tanks sits in rubber-like bladders that have to be laced into the spars. Imagine a five-foot tall by eight-foot long by five-foot wide cavity. It’s hot. The bladder is already threaded around the fuel pump that shoots fuel aft to the boom. And you have to thread rope through holes cut into fins in the bladder to holes cut into the cavity spars. It’s not easy.

I don't know this guy, but this is what it looked like. See the bladder above his left shoulder? Of course, back in the day, we didn't have respirators and the guy'd have to hold the flashlight in his teeth.

And it’s dangerous. Well, working with bladders isn’t so dangerous, although it would be for the flight crew if you puncture the bladder with your safety wire. Working in the wing tanks can be lethal. Every fuel job requires completely draining the plane, then clearing out the fumes. Jet fuel isn’t flammable; the fumes are. And, according to our chief, the urban legend is true. While a fuel specialist was inspecting a wing tank on a B-52, his spotters had an emergency and left him. The supervisor came along and didn’t know he was in there, so he cleared away the stair cart and fans and sealed ‘er up. The tech passed out in the cell, and nobody knew. Jet fuel does interesting things to a human body. All they could do was change the filters after each flight until the sludge cleared away.

Engine swaps are a big deal, but necessary. There’s lots of gadgets around the engine—fire suppression, oil pump, fuel pump—but if something goes wrong with the innards—bird strike chips a fan blade—the engine becomes one big black box to remove-and-replace. Flightlines are incredibly careful about FOD (stands for both “Foreign Object Debris”—crap on the ground—and “Foreign Object Damage”—the damage the crap on the ground did to the engine), but on an unimproved runway in the Sand Box…I don’t know how they kept their engines clean.

Of course, depot maintenance is the big one. Raggedy, patch-work planes leave their units and fly south. Ten months later, they’re back, good as new. Then the backshop and flightline crew chiefs inspect them and fix everything the depot guys missed.

Oodles and oodles of opportunity for story tension here. It’s all well and good to scavenge bailing wire and chewing gum to get your fleet up and ready to fight off the Zarborgians, but real maintenance involves layers of people and paperwork (okay, computer work) just to change a tire. Supplies are hard enough to come by in Great Falls, Montana, let alone Kuwait or Betelgeuse 5. And always the fight between the operator-commanders who Have A Mission and the backshop maintainers who want to make sure that panel really isn’t going to come off at an inopportune time.

And what about facilities? It’s all well and good to decide your space station keeps even the lowliest skiff on the outside of the station, but do you really expect your maintainers to suit up every time they have to go “outside” to check a weld or a heat tile? Cheese and crackers, the theatrics Maj Tom would fly into when an astronaut lost a wrench! Think of all the bits and pieces required for simply removing a panel—and all those pieces could so easily fly off and hit Admiral Ackbar’s personal yacht while the station is both revolving around the planet and rotating to create artificial gravity. Then you have another maintenance job to handle. Plus, each job has to be signed off by someone higher. And it’s all well and good to say you’re just going to limit maintenance to a few select shipyards, but in space that’s not very practical. Your planet’s going to be hard up for supplies if you can’t promise reasonable support for your traders. Ferrying ships from a station to a shipyard requires a tug—and a shipyard. Is your shipyard accredited? Are your maintainers 7-levels who can tear apart a transmorgifyer and get it going again or 3-levels who only R-square black boxes. And, if the latter, do you have the black boxes? Or were they on that tramp freighter that bypassed your system because the ship’s so old it requires a refurb at each stop?

So forget about your boring, egotistical zipper-suited-sun-gods and discover the dangerous, dramatic, fun-filled world of maintenance. Where the beer flows freely and a lost wrench is more dangerous than a photon torpedo.

Besides, everybody knows Kirk was nothing without Scotty.

* It turned out really nice.
** Actually, it was two six-packs of Widmer’s—hefeweizen and honey raspberry wheat (back when you could get honey raspberry wheat). And in case you didn't get that, very few aircraft maintainers know anything about their cars. I knew a master sergeant, an F-16 hydraulics specialist, who couldn't change his own oil.
*** “Lots of wonderful things to write about yourself on your Enlisted Performance Report.”

Kersley Fitzgerald is still just a little bit miffed about the day the commander and all but one of the senior NCOs in supervision took the day off to shoot prairie dogs and didn't invite her.

On her birthday.
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