Airmen working in their career field may find themselves in places or situations they never imagined they would be. This could be traveling to a country they never expected to see, perhaps working alongside generals, or even crawling into the cramped fuel tanks of a C-130J Super Hercules.
Two crews of Airmen assigned to the 86th Maintenance Squadron worked around the clock for 10 days, experiencing the fuel tanks while performing a mandatory inspection for a C-130 that had reached its 12-year mark, from July 30 to Aug. 9.
“The purpose of doing the fuel tank inspections is basically to ensure there aren’t structural weaknesses and other discrepancies inside the fuel tank,” said Staff Sgt. Jonathan Crowell, 86 MXS aircraft fuel systems craftsman. “I also check the accuracy of my Airmen and the work they are doing to ensure it is done properly by our technical orders in accordance with all of our other regulations and maintaining proper safety equipment.”
There are four main fuel tanks for a C-130, two on each side of the aircraft. They’re comprised of a dry bay chamber, which houses the door to the fuel tank itself. While the C-130 has a capacity of holding 60,000 pounds of fuel, the tanks still do not allow much room to work in.
“I love getting in (the) tank,” said Airman 1st Class Juan Gutierrez, 86th MXS aircraft fuel systems repair apprentice. “It’s a pretty fun job once you do, but it’s not for everyone. You really have to prepare yourself because it’s a really tight work space, but it’s a pretty crucial job. If there’s anything wrong with the aircraft, we make the call if it’s safe to fly or not. We got a lot of aircraft experience from just this job alone.”
For a full fuel tank inspection, the 86th MXS Airmen examined every clip, rivet, stringer and all other components inside the dry bays and tanks that allow fuel to be moved throughout the aircraft. They inspected the tanks for cracks or other signs of structural damage.
“I enjoy doing it because I enjoy trying to be as thorough as I possibly can,” Crowell said. “If I miss something, it could potentially be an endangerment to the pilots. Paying attention to detail is a big part of our job. It’s a lot riding not only my shoulders but also on my Airmen. If they see something before I go in, they can bring it up to me, and that’s good for them because they’re getting that experience, knowing what to look for and exactly how to look for things.
“It’s a very tasking job when you think about it,” he continued. “We’re signing off on a multimillion dollar aircraft’s ability to fly, so there’s a lot of thought and patience that has to go in to it. It’s definitely an experience; it’s very exhausting physically and can be mentally exhausting.”
The missions of the C-130s at Ramstein are to provide airlift and cargo support throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East. They have the capability to move troops, supplies and vehicles and provide medical evacuations. This makes them an important asset for the Air Force throughout those regions.
“It makes me feel great because we’re basically telling the Air Force if the aircraft is safe to fly or not,” Gutierrez said. “And if it’s not, we make the corrections and repairs. If it is safe to fly, it’s awesome because the plane is ready for the mission and (to) support the Air Force with everything these planes are meant to do.”
Once a C-130 has undergone its 12-year inspection, it is required to have a full inspection every six years after that. This makes full fuel tank inspections few and far between.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people in my tenure, since this is the first time for me and I’ve been doing this for 11 years,” Crowell said. “But this job we just performed, it has been the toughest job I have experienced since being here at Ramstein.”
On a regular basis, the 86th MXS primarily does component replacements, leak repair and identifies structural weaknesses once a week to once every other week. Depending on what needs to be repaired, this can range from a single shift to a few days to complete the job.
“It definitely instills a sense of pride that I had some part to play in making an aircraft safe to fly,” Crowell said. “Also (pride) in my guys turning wrenches. They put in the blood, sweat and effort in order to get the job done in a timely and safe manner. Knowing you had a single part in the big picture is very eye-opening. It’s a good feeling when you stop to think about it. Everyone has a role, and it’s a very intricate masterpiece that you’re working on.”
All of the 86th MXS Airmen fulfilled their role, despite the small work environment and large task before them, to ensure a Ramstein C-130 was safe to fly so it could provide its capabilities for the overall Air Force mission.