I recently engaged in a social media discussion started by a former fighter aircraft mechanic. He was justfiably proud of his contributions and received a number of supportive comments on the string. I was reminded of a passage in the book that paid homage to the legions of professionals who make it possible for people like me to do what I always loved, safely and securely. The following excerpt is my small tribute to the backbone of our profession. God bless the technicians, specialists and all those who cared for those superb macines, day in and day out–and a special thanks to the choreographers of this noble effort: The Crew Chief.
Fighter aviation, more than any other profession I am familiar with, requires the individual to place considerable confidence in fellow aviators and many other members of the team. Being able to rely on your back- seater for accurate information in a two-seat fighter or your wingman in a formation is crucial in a combat scenario. The concept of exploiting additional pairs of eyes when seeking out potential enemies is one of the cornerstones of survival in the world of the fighter pilot. A flight leader must know his wingmen will follow orders instantly and without question. This compliance is predicated on the wingmen having faith that the leader has the skill and judgment to provide directions that are comprehensive and reliable. The mutual trust required to manage a complex fluid scenario involving a number of other aircraft to a successful conclusion cannot be overstated.
Trust also extends beyond the cockpit in the fighter business. Our aircraft are maintained by a force of superb technicians, most of whom specialize in one aspect or another of the bird’s systems: engines, electronics, flight controls, avionics, life-support systems, armament controls, hydraulics, pneumatics, fuel systems and on and on. There are specialists who hang the weapons, service the ejection seats and maintain canopies and navigation systems and most of these folks are more or less anonymous as far as the pilot is concerned. There is, however, a single link between all these technicians and the airplane driver and that connection is the crew chief or CC. The CC is normally responsible for one aircraft and it is he or she that ties the efforts of all these other folks together to present a safe, flyable aircraft to the jock when he (or she) strides purposefully up to the bird to appropriate it for a couple of hours’ sport. The entire report card for the aircraft is contained in Air Force Form 781. This is a large white loose-leaf notebook which catalogues the efforts of all the aforementioned specialists and culminates in the crew chief ’s personal certification that the airplane meets all the many prerequisites for flight and is ready to go.
This process would be unremarkable except for the fact that the vast majority of crew chiefs are youths in their 20s or early 30s. In a period when adolescents in the same age group are aggressively demanding $15 per hour for flipping hamburgers, they are performing a far more responsible function with life and death consequences and IMHO for significantly less compensation than they deserve..
I was always impressed with the professionalism and enthusiasm of the young men and women who kept their airplane spit-shined and serviceable and then loaned it to me to take out, ride hard and bring back wet. There was a ritual that accompanied this transfer of machinery: the CC would salute smartly as I approached, hand me the Form 781 and after I signed it off (the pilot still retains the last formal remnant of responsibility), he or she would follow me around the bird while I preflighted it, follow me up the steps and help me strap in. Then, together, we would step through a start sequence and perform a visual check of those flight controls which I couldn’t see from the cockpit. Once accomplished, the CC marshaled me out of the parking spot, ensuring clearance from potential obstructions and snap one more sharp salute as I rolled past. At this point, more often than not, the CC would bless his/her bird and my flight by planting a kiss (via the fingertips) on the passing wingtip. I was always a bit buoyed when receiving this special send-off.
How do you reward this kind of dedication from someone so young? I found unembarrassed respect and a touch of kinship to be effective. After all, we were both in this together. Occasionally, when I wanted to show special appreciation, I would walk up to the aircraft, return the salute and ask, ‘How’s the bird today, Chief?’ If the answer was positive, as expected, I’d sign off the form with little more than a glance, forego the preflight inspection completely and head straight up the steps, leaving the CC watching me in astonishment before hustling up behind me for the strap-in and the remainder of the ritual. While my intentional flouting of established procedures (and admittedly slapdash technique) would have landed me firmly in the shit had things gone wrong, the motivational effect on that kid whose name was stenciled on the airplane was dramatic and IMHO well worth the risk.
I must reinforce my opinions with a true adventure. In January, 1979, the 92nd Tac Fighter Squadron ‘Skulls’ deployed as a squadron to bring the first A-10s to RAF Bentwaters in the UK. The complete saga can be found in the book, but I’m going to begin this excerpt at Lajes, in the Azores, starting engines for the last leg of the journey home. The tankers are already airborne, waiting for us to join up our gaggle of ’Hogs and come aboard. We’re starting engines and going through the final flight control checks when my crew chief plugs his microphone and headset into the communications port inside the ladder door. ‘Sir,’ he says, ‘I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’ve got an oil leak on your number one (left) engine.’ Employing the most versatile expression in the fighter pilot’s phrase book, I reply ‘Ahhhh, shit!!’ and a number of crucial facts race through my brain:
- Elaine will be waiting at Bentwaters and she’ll be sorely pissed off if I don’t show (get-homeitis)
- Tankers are airborne, flight plans are filed, international clearances have been approved and there’s no way this flight’s going to wait for Steve to get his airplane fixed if it ain’t real quick
- If I get left behind today, God knows how and when I’m going to get home. The whole deployment is based on multi-ship travel with tanker support; there are simply no single-ship trans-ocean deployments so I will have to wait for another organized crossing or go home commercial air and leave my bird behind
- Did I mention Elaine will be waiting at Bentwaters and she’ll be sorely pissed off if I don’t show?
My crew chief ’s already on the case. I’ve shut down the engine, he’s popped open the engine nacelle on number one and he and a couple others are feverishly going through the myriad oil lines, looking for my leak. I can’t see their efforts (and wouldn’t know what they were doing if I could), but I can hear metal on metal and I silently will my crew chief to find a bigger hammer, if that’s what it takes.
All around me, A-10s are beginning to taxi. They’ll leave my space in the sequence open right up until take-off, but significant delay is simply not an option. The end of our departure window is minutes away and I am in real danger of becoming an unwilling tourist in the Azores. My crew chief comes back up on the headset: ‘We think we’ve found it sir, crank up number one and let’s run it for a quick leak check.’ Engine running, after what seems to be an eternity, he says: ‘You’re good to go, Sir.’ This is where the trust comes in; there’s no need for ‘Are you sure, Chief?’ only the positive inflection on the most versatile phrase: ‘Shit hot, Chief; like it a lot! I owe you one’, followed by ‘Lajes Tower, Warthog 21 taxi to join the flight’ and the unsaid ‘saved by the bell’. As I rolled out, I noticed the fingertip kiss being bestowed on the wingtip and gave the man of the hour a smart salute and a heartfelt thumbs-up.
The presence of trust doesn’t mean you stop thinking. Taxiing out, my mind wanders to ‘what ifs?’:
- What if the leak returns with a vengeance? It’s 2,000 miles over water to Bentwaters and, although the ’Hog will fly on one engine, it won’t fly very well
- What if I end up in the frigid Atlantic, a long, long way from home?
- What if the damn Poopy Suit leaks and even if it doesn’t, who’s going to be out there to pick me up?
All reasonable concerns, I think, but I didn’t dwell on them; it was show time! Nevertheless, I spent a lot more time than usual checking the number one engine oil pressure gauge on the way home. I needn’t have worried; she ran like the proverbial Swiss watch.