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Creative troops, maintenance keep vintage tankers airborne

Airman 1st Class Brian Sloppy (right) and Senior Airman Jimmy Aguilar open the turbofan engine cowling of a KC-135 Stratotanker at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, on July 26. The Airmen are crew chiefs with the 100th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. They work 12-hour shifts to keep their fleet of 15 tankers flying. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

Airman 1st Class Brian Sloppy (right) and Senior Airman Jimmy Aguilar open the turbofan engine cowling of a KC-135 Stratotanker at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, on July 26. The Airmen are crew chiefs with the 100th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. They work 12-hour shifts to keep their fleet of 15 tankers flying. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

Senior Airman Kimieh Deoliveira coordinates the painting of a KC-135 Stratotanker at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, July 26.  The Airman is with the 100th Maintenance Operations Squadron. He uses a computer-based aircraft status overview program to help ensure the nearly 50-year-old aircraft gets the maintenance it needs. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

Senior Airman Kimieh Deoliveira coordinates the painting of a KC-135 Stratotanker at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, July 26. The Airman is with the 100th Maintenance Operations Squadron. He uses a computer-based aircraft status overview program to help ensure the nearly 50-year-old aircraft gets the maintenance it needs. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

Staff Sgt. Daniel Schnell removes the brake pucks from a KC-135 Stratotanker brake plate at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, on July 26. The sergeant from the 6th Maintenance Squadron at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., and is working with Mildenhall's 100th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron in the combat integrated repair facility. This facility brings maintainers from other bases to work on aircraft parts from the in-transit aircraft and from the European and Southwest Asia theaters. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

Staff Sgt. Daniel Schnell removes the brake pucks from a KC-135 Stratotanker brake plate at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, on July 26. The sergeant from the 6th Maintenance Squadron at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., and is working with Mildenhall's 100th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron in the combat integrated repair facility. This facility brings maintainers from other bases to work on aircraft parts from the in-transit aircraft and from the European and Southwest Asia theaters. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

ROYAL AIR FORCE MILDENHALL, England (AFPN) -- Airmen who maintain the fleet of KC-135 Stratotankers at this base fight a constant battle to keep the vintage jets flying their vital refueling missions.

At times that can be an around-the-clock struggle because the aging tanker suffers from seasonal maladies, said Col. Mike Saville, the 100th Maintenance Group commander. The 500 troops he commands maintain the 100th Air Refueling Wing's fleet of 15 jets.

The colonel has been in the Air Force aircraft maintenance business 27 years. He has seen how spikes in the weather can wreak havoc on the fleet, where the average jet is 44 years old. He said the tanker's struts leak in cold weather. But the tanker's fuel bladders suffer most.

"In cold weather, fuel bladders are plagued by leaks," he said. "That causes our biggest downtimes."

But the unseasonably warm summer weather most of Europe is experiencing is helpng the tankers. The colonel said the wing's mission-capable rate is now at a steady 84 percent -- higher than the Air Force standard. The rate is a key indicator of how well a unit is doing.

"For the past five months, we've met or exceeded the standard," the colonel from Cumberland, Md., said. "That means 13 out of 15 are ready to go. The KC-135 likes the summertime."

But he said the aircraft's summer success also proves maintenance troops are winning the fight to keep the 1950s-era airplane in the air. During the past 12 months, the wing's logistics departure reliability -- the number of times the tankers take off on schedule -- has also stayed above the Air Force standard.

During that period maintenance troops also had to deal with 63 last-minute breaks. These occurred after airplanes had their engines running and were ready for takeoff. Known as "red ball," these breaks can cause mission aborts.

"We've got a 14-minute window to get that aircraft launched on time," the colonel said.

That window ends 14 minutes past the scheduled takeoff time. After that it is a late takeoff. But in most cases, maintainers made quick fixes and the planes took off within the window.

"That's a testament to the maintainers on the line," Colonel Saville said. "They're doing maintenance magic to get aircraft off the ground."

But there is nothing magic about the job the maintenance troops do. On the flightline and in the maintenance back shops, Airmen perform the scheduled preventive maintenance that helps avert problems. And when an airplane breaks, they find innovative ways to repair the broken tankers.

Second Lt. Katie Williams has been on the job as the officer in charge of the 100th Maintenance Squadron's fabrications shop for less than a year. But she has learned to trust the Airmen who work for her. Her troops work to ensure quality maintenance, while maintaining the tanker's structural integrity.

"Sometimes we need to come up with our own fix," the lieutenant from Tustin, Calif., said. "It takes a lot of ingenuity to come up with a fix when the solution isn't in the technical orders."

When her troops venture down that path, they cannot just come up with what they believe is a good fix and implement it. Before they can put a fix into practice, they must document the procedure and ask engineers at KC-135 depot maintenance bases for the OK to proceed.

"Most times, (engineers) review the proposal, provide guidance -- or a better solution -- and say go ahead," Master Sgt. J.R. Robertson said.

The documentation puts the problem and fix in writing and allows maintainers at other tanker bases to benefit from the solution.

Sergeant Robertson is superintendent of the 100th Maintenance Operations Squadron's maintenance operations center. It is the wing's nerve center for tracking, coordinating and monitoring all maintenance and sortie production. He knows what's going on in the maintenance squadrons. He believes forward-thinking Airmen will keep the tanker flying. But after 19 years as a maintainer, he believes the airplane is not winning the battle.

"Everyone talks about how old the KC-135 is and how well it's holding up after all these years," the sergeant from Charlotte, N.C., said. "But in my opinion, it's actually how well maintenance is holding up the KC-135."

Constant maintenance, a team effort, long work hours and dedicated Airmen keep the plane and its service life going down the road year after year, the sergeant said. A good example is the group's 12-hour fix rate. That is the unit's ability to fix a maintenance problem in under 12 hours. It is an often-overlooked statistic, but not at Mildenhall.

As a result, the sergeant said, "It's a money-maker because it reflects how fast our guys are fixing airplanes so they can return for another mission. That takes dedication."

Senior Airman Daniel Montgomery is a good example of an Airman dedicated to keeping the Stratotanker in the air. A crew chief with the 100th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, he is part of a four-member crew. He spends a lot of time fixing aircraft other than his own.

But every chance he gets, the Airman is hard at work on his own plane, which carries the name of a World War II B-17 Flying Fortress, "Command Decision." A flying crew chief, he is responsible for the jet's overall maintenance. Though specialists in a variety of aircraft systems do most of the repair work, the Airman's aim is to make sure everything on his airplane works. It has become somewhat of an obsession for the young troop from Roseville, Calif.

"That's my job," he said. "That's what I get paid to do and why I joined the Air Force. I take pride in my airplane."

The hard work Airman Montgomery, his crew mates and the other Airmen in the back shops put into the aircraft has paid off. It is the only one in the base fleet that does not have a single discrepancy -- a rare feat for an old aircraft.

That earned Command Decision a "black letter initial." That means that instead of a symbol denoting a break, only the maintenance superintendent's initials -- which signify a clean bill of health -- appear on the form used to grade an aircraft's readiness.

"That means it is 100 percent perfect and mission capable," the Airman said.

Colonel Saville said in all his years in maintenance he can count on one hand the number of times he's seen an aircraft take off with a black letter initial rating. Days later, the jet was still flying without discrepancies, a good indication of the quality maintenance it is getting, he said.

"That aircraft is in better shape than when it rolled off the assembly line," the colonel said.

That kind of accomplishment is hard to come by, the colonel said. And he credits the fact crew chiefs have ownership of the planes they maintain for the achievement. It is that kind of effort the fleet needs to continue flying.

Mildenhall's jets will continue to go through the ups and downs of the maintenance war, as will the Air Force's fleet. And maintenance crews will keep finding ways to fix them. For Lieutenant Williams, the tanker base is a good place for her to learn the ropes of the maintenance trade.

Overall, she believes the tanker is holding up well under the constant maintenance. And she also believes it will be around for another 50 years -- at least that's her maintainer's reaction.

"And as long as we can fabricate parts, maintain the aircraft and its structural integrity -- and get it up in the air -- we can fly it," she said.

At Mildenhall, maintainers and aircrews do that daily.

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