Camera maintainers are two of a kind

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Erick Studenicka
  • Nevada National Guard Public Affairs
Endangered species are scattered around the world, sometimes in the least likely of places. The few hundred remaining mountain gorillas are found deep in the Congo. A few dozen Amur tigers exist in out-of-the-way Siberia. The surviving giant pandas are located in secluded southern China.

But the last two KS-87B film camera repairmen remaining in the military, Tech. Sgts. Brian McBeth and Brian Guettler, are found in a remote avionics shop at the Nevada Air National Guard Air Base here.

“We are something like the dodo bird," joked Sergeant McBeth, comparing his job to the flightless bird that became extinct in the 1700s. "This shop is the last option for repair in the military. When we are gone, there will be no one left to fix these cameras."

The KS-87B camera is used in C-26 counterdrug surveillance aircraft to provide high-resolution photo reconnaissance. Although digital technology has replaced film in many military photographic situations, film remains the standard for verifiable documentation in court cases and hence maintains its importance in the National Guard Bureau's counterdrug program.

There are about 100 KS-87B cameras in use, with about half of those needing regular maintenance during a given year, Sergeant McBeth said.

"The military is going to continue to use film as long as it's possible to fix the cameras," Sergeant Guettler said. "These cameras are reliable and right now there's not enough money to convert the program entirely to digital."

Ironically, even though the base here boasts the only KS-87B repair facility, Nevada is not one of the states with a C-26 aircraft program.

"This repair shop dates back to 1994 when the Nevada Air Guard used KS-87B cameras on its RF-4C [Phantom IIs]," Sergeant McBeth explained. "The Nevada Air Guard no longer uses the camera and we don't have a C-26 program, so you could say this is an unlikely spot for a repair depot."

Initially, the shop served only for internal repair of the RF-4C cameras. But when Hill Air Force Base, Utah, closed down its camera repair shop in 2002, the air base in Reno suddenly became the depot level repair shop by default.

"Without any training, test equipment or tools, we took over all of the depot-level repairs," Sergeant Guettler said. "We've devised locally manufactured test equipment and procedures to complete the required depot-level work."

With replacement parts extremely expensive or often unavailable, the two sergeants have become experts in hoarding spare parts and pieces from inoperable cameras. Reminiscent of an auto salvage yard, the repair shop here is a graveyard for dozens of cameras waiting to be used for spare parts in the future.

"For example, a shutter motor that would cost $15,000 to replace with a new part can now be repaired right here at no cost with our own innovations in ways to repair and test equipment," Sergeant McBeth said. "We are replacing about 20 motors per month, so the savings each year is likely in the millions of dollars."

Sergeant McBeth is also the answer to another Air National Guard trivia question. He is the only member of the Air Force to go through the Navy's KS-87D Camera Repair Course. That camera, used on the F-14 Tomcats, is very similar to the KS-87B. Sergeant Guettler, waiting for a seat in an upcoming class, is likely to become the second Air Force sergeant to graduate from the course.

Although the need for film camera repairmen in the military is declining, Sergeants McBeth and Guettler are not too fearful of their own "extinction." In the future, both expect to become imagery analysts within the Nevada counterdrug program. Their expanded responsibilities will include maintaining and repairing both film and digital cameras and surveillance equipment used by reconnaissance air interdiction units.