Desert duty: crew chiefs keep C-130s flying

  • Published
  • By Maj. Ann Knabe
  • 379th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
No one wishes for an aircraft to break -- especially flying crew chiefs.

But, that’s when the mobile C-130 Hercules maintainers receive the most attention -- when something is wrong with the plane and they are far away from home.

“Fortunately, C-130s are extremely reliable,” said Senior Master Sgt. Edward Rife, production supervisor for the 379th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron. “They seldom break to the point where the aircraft can’t return to base. But, if that happens, the flying crew chiefs come to the rescue.”

Sergeant Rife said most of the C-130s used in Southwest Asia are between 10 and 14 years old, but added that some as old as 40 are still flying.

“C-130s are amazing aircraft, but they need to be properly maintained,” said the Air Force reservist whose home unit is the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

Part of the key to keeping the aviation workhorses flying high is to have one or two crew chiefs assigned to each aircraft. These flying maintainers are prepared to deal with a variety of aircraft problems in any location worldwide.

“We need to know everything, including engines, navigation, electrical, hydraulics and fuels,” said Senior Airman Christopher Sutton, a 746th Aircraft Maintenance Unit crew chief.

He likened crew chiefs to family doctors.

“We find out from the aircrew how the airplane flew and troubleshoot any problems that occurred, and refer (the aircraft) back to a specialist,” said the reservist, whose home unit is the 913th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron in Willow Grove, Pa. “We also make sure the airplane can safely fly the mission to its home base.”

Recently, Airman Sutton and another Willow Grove crew chief, Master Sgt. Steven Ashley, found themselves in a remote area of Ethiopia with a broken aircraft.

“The weather was the most challenging part of this mission,” Airman Sutton said. “The heat was brutal and the location made it difficult to get parts in to repair the plane. The simple airfield also lacked resources, so we were stuck for a couple of days.”

Sergeant Ashley agreed the remote location posed unique challenges, but he didn’t let the wait frustrate him.

“It gave me an opportunity to see the local culture and understand how U.S. military humanitarian cargo affects the Ethiopians directly,” he said.

Airman Sutton said he tried not to feel pressured as they worked to determine how to fix the problem, but understood future missions could be affected by mechanical delays.

“When the plane initially broke, I thought, ‘This is what I am here for and we will get this airplane out of here,’” he said.

Later, when Airman Sutton was on a ladder looking at one of the engines, he thought about how any delay could affect future missions.

“I wondered whose life I was affecting, what missions would be delayed and what impact it would have on other people,” he said. 

It turned out the engine had a temperature datum control problem and speed switch issue, all which affect fuel and air control. Within a couple of days, Sergeant Ashley and Airman Sutton had the parts to fix the plane so the crew could safely fly back to their base in Southwest Asia.

“Our crew chiefs are pros, but their hard work is often overlooked,” said Lt. Col. Giordano McMullen, the 746th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron commander. “Without them, our mission would come to a complete halt.”

Sergeant Ashley said it’s all part of his job, and he’s just happy when a plane flies safely again after repairs.

“The greatest feeling in the world is watching an aircraft fly after you’ve fixed it,” he said. “Add the admiration of the aircrew, and the feeling is priceless.”