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Airmen brave hazards inside fuel tanks

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- Keeping fuel flowing to an aircraft engine is an essential part of flight. Fuel systems specialists from the 374th Maintenance Squadron here operate around the clock ensuring Air Force aircraft fuel systems are safe and in peak operating condition.

The 14-person team is responsible for diagnosing fuel system and component malfunctions for various assigned and in-transit cargo aircraft including the C-130 Hercules, C-5 Galaxy, C-17 Globemaster III, C-141 Starlifter and C-9 Nightingale. They also remove, repair, clean, inspect, install and modify aircraft fuel systems, including integral fuel tanks, bladder cells and external tanks.

A majority of the time someone must physically enter the tank, which is where many environmental hazards exist. This makes their job one of the most dangerous in the Air Force. Team members said what they do is not for the fainthearted.

"It was like being inside a coffin," said Airman 1st Class Steve Robinson, a fuel systems apprentice, describing the first time he crawled inside a C-130 wing. "It was dark, gloomy and damp. It was horrible."

He said that the tight work space, which measures approximately 3-feet high and 4-feet wide in most places, is very restrictive. Once, while fixing a manifold inside the wing of a C-9 aircraft, Robinson could not get himself out and had to be pulled out by the ankles. Although it can be nerve-racking at times, he said he enjoys his work and is proud to be part of the team.

"This is one of the hardest and, at the same time, the most rewarding jobs in the military," he said.

Aside from forcing the maintenance people to navigate through excruciatingly cramped places, the fuel tanks also pose numerous potential risks including fire, explosion, toxic chemical exposure and oxygen deficiency or enrichment conditions. To be able to combat the fumes and other hazardous substances, the maintainers are required to wear supplied-air respiratory protection equipment. This means donning a full-face mask, gloves and cotton coveralls. Their breathing air is supplied mechanically through a specially designed breathing-air compressor.

"It's challenging enough to work in a dark and confined area, but it makes it tougher when wearing all that safety gear," said Airman 1st Class James Mathews, a fuel systems apprentice.

Armed with tools, manuals and a flashlight, the mechanics can spend up to eight hours crawling, sliding, ducking and pushing their bodies around the confining aircraft interior crowded with valves, pumps, safety wire, foam baffles and other components.

"I've come home with cuts, bruises and lumps," said Mathews. "After the end of the day your body is so sore and painful."

Staff Sgt. Andre Thomas, a shift supervisor, said the most important factor in preventing injury is a properly trained and equipped crew.

"Safety is our No. 1 priority," he said.

The element uses a three-person crew during operations: a tank entrant, an attendant and an equipment monitor. Additionally, the shift supervisor will authorize the work and ensure that it is conducted according to procedures. The attendant orders an evacuation when people are at risk. The team conducts annual emergency evacuation drills.

"Everything here is done through team effort," Thomas said. "If someone is not paying attention, somebody can die."

Several years ago Thomas was horrified when he dropped his wrench while working inside a flammable tank. Expecting the worse, he immediately made peace with God. Luckily, nothing happened. He challenges anyone to spend a day with his shop and experience one of the toughest jobs in the Air Force.

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