Maintainers brave elements to keep tankers flying

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Randy Roughton
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Teeth chatter, hands shake, even bones ache through cold-weather gloves.

While almost all North Dakota wildlife is in hiding, and most people here are sheltered indoors from the sub-zero temperatures and brutal 40 mph winds, 319th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron workers are fighting the elements while doing their job on the flightline.

"Cold weather is a totally different game," said Tech. Sgt. Brian Greene, a 319th AMXS hydraulics technician. "Everything is more complicated, your workload quadruples, but it's the wind that kills you."

Airmen in the 319th Maintenance Group have always used a buddy system for working on the flightline in extreme cold. People check their buddies frequently for signs of cold injuries, and work in unheated areas cannot exceed one minute. They also use work-rest cycles at a recommended rate of a 10-minute break each hour, with more frequent breaks as the temperature decreases.

When the wind chills reach below minus 34, all lower priority outdoor work stops. Outdoor work is accomplished only after assessing risk and mission priorities, and any work is then performed under direct supervision. All outdoor work is suspended when the temperature drops below minus 48.

The squadron's focus on "back to basics" in aircraft maintenance, especially emphasizes cold-weather hazards during wintertime, said Lt. Col. James Howe, 319th AMXS commander.

"We stress the usage of proper full protection hardware that's available for de-icing operations and walking on the wings," Howe said.

Although winter conditions give the maintenance crews considerably more work and worries, planning often helps limit the exposure to the cold, Greene said. Still, there will be times when there is no avoiding the worst Mother Nature has to offer.

"When (on a cold day) we know an airplane won't leave until 4 p.m., the first thing I do is call the aerospace ground equipment shop for a heater, so we can work with the weather not even being a factor," Greene said. "But when the aircrew is already on the plane ready to launch, we have to get working immediately, although I have someone call to get a heater as soon as possible."

"It's like an icebox when we first get here," said Airman 1st Class Jonathan Mullins, a crew chief.

The squadron's high temporary-duty rate has made coping with weather conditions even more difficult.

"You come back from Turkey, where it's 85 degrees ... to here, where it's totally different," Greene said. "Then, you go to Base Y. So the weather operations change back and forth. It's much easier when you're here as the weather gradually changes. Going from here to the desert is a big factor."

De-icing the planes is a key responsibility of the alternate mission equipment, or AME, shop. Part of the shop's job is servicing the 20 1,800-gallon de-icers, said Senior Airman Scott Gebhardt, an AME technician.

Gebhardt and others from the shop often find themselves spending half the day in the cold.

"You just learn to dress warm," he said, "because if you get too hot, you know you can take a layer of clothing off. You stay warm and try to keep moving."

Senior Airman Chris Proscia, a crew chief, recalls his first experience of getting up in a de-icer and spraying down a plane.

"The first time for me was cold," Proscia said. "Just coming from Texas and getting here in February nearly three years ago -- it was extremely cold.

"When I was using the spray gun for the fluid, I didn't know how to adjust it at first, and I ended up turning up the fan where some of the fluid blew up in my face," he said. "At first there (was a) sweet taste and after that, it wasn't so sweet." (Courtesy of Air Mobility Command News Service)