In 1980, getting to the point of takeoff with this 25 year old aircraft was a real maintenance challenge
We are still flying these aircraft, albeit the water-injected engines have been replaced
A KC-135 in-flight refueling mission often started with my radio alarm going off at 3am.
Aware of my wife’s low and steady breathing, I quickly kill the alarm and quietly rise from bed to take a shower. I had set the alarm for 3 because I need to be at the air refueling rendezvous point on time.
There is a precise spot out there in time and space. If I am not there, the receiver does not get his fuel. Recon does not happen. Top military and civilian leaders will be without the timely intel they need to keep the peace in the Cold War.
So that’s my mission. Get the receivers the fuel they need to do their mission. Not really all that glamorous. But important.
Now fully awake from the bracing shower, I tiptoe around the bedroom to get my flight suit and other gear my as wife sleeps peacefully.
As I don my one-piece, fire-resistant flight suit (the “green bag”), scarf, boots, fire-resistant jacket, and helmet bag, I systematically check each of the many pockets to make sure all my needed gear is there. Lastly, I pat my inner thigh to check on the switchblade needed to cut me away from my parachute. Lots of things to check. This is just the first litany.
I get a flash-back to my days as a altar boy helping the priest don his vestments. A bit the same, I am thinking. He prepared for his Mass with ritual and checklist, just as I prepare for my upcoming flight. Litany, rituals, checklists.
As I pull out of my on-base housing carport, Beale AFB is dark and most residents are asleep. But as I drive towards the flight line, there are more lights and more activity. It is 4 am now as I walk across the parking lot, enter the windowless building, and proceed to my squadron. I am the flight lead for a 3-ship tanker formation supporting an operational, radio-silent SR-71 recon mission. Once in the squadron, I greet my crew, we grab a table, and I lead the pre-flight briefing. I check off each item religiously and end with a safety briefing.
Great crew, I think to myself. Knows their jobs. I also think: Timing looks good to make sure we get to that in-flight refueling rendezvous point on time.
So on to the aircraft. As usual the navigator flirts with the pretty bus driver on the way out to the aircraft (he later marries her) and the copilot jokes around with me and the boom operator. The other two crews are in another crew bus going to their ships that happen to be parked next to each other, but way across the ramp and away from ours. At our aircraft, the bus disgorges my crew and we go our separate ways to pre-flight the 270,000 pound KC-135 Stratotanker.
My ritual continues with a thorough walk-around of the large aircraft. Nose compartment door closed, manual refueling valves handle in fight mode, single point refueling receptacle checks OK no leaks, single point ground refueling panel off and cover closed, etc, etc.
I pause at certain points for an extra touch or look and then …Uh oh.
I call the crew chief over to take a look a panel that seems to have some bad fasteners. He gets right on it. I finish my exterior check and proceed up the crew ladder into the cockpit. I quickly glance at my wrist watch. On schedule. Good. We’ve got a rendezvous time to make. No time to hang around here just to see if the crew chief does his job. He knows what he’s doing. I need to keep the pace. Keep moving forward. Keep improving my position.
I climb the crew ladder, enter the cockpit, and strap into the left hand seat. The co-pilot has completed his checklist and we start on our shared checklist. And …. Uh oh.
The rudder trim is going clack-a-clacky-clack when it should go smoothly. Another maintenance call. Let’s get this stuff working! The clock is ticking.
The UHF radio is acting up. The copilot had already called into maintenance about one of the 10 fuel gages for our 10 fuel tanks. And the navigator had some issues with his gyrocompass. Par for the course for a 25 year old aircraft. But we need to be at that rendezvous point on time.
Just keep note of the issues and get them worked off. Keep improving your position.
The before-starting-engines checklist proceeds without incident. External power — Closed! Battery power switch — Normal! Rudder Pedals, Safety Belts, and Shoulder Harnesses — Adjusted! And so on.
Ready to start engines. Meanwhile, the fuel gage has been swapped by maintenance and the new one works.
Avionics boxes get quickly swapped and a green-suited 19 year-old kid emerges from the “hell-hole”, the space beneath the cockpit that holds the rudder trim. “Try it now, sir!” I do. “It works great” I reply.
Then on to starting engines. External power switch — Close! Battery Power Switch — set to Emergency! Parking brakes — Set! And so on. Engines started.
Looks good feels good, but while all that was going on, the radar went “tango uniform”. Yet another maintenance call — but we have a refueling rendezvous time to meet! Time to taxi the aircraft! Can’t wait around here in parking. We have to get to that refueling point on time! What do I really need? What can I leave broken?
“Improve your position. Always improve your position.” That’s what I was taught as a co-pilot moving up to aircraft commander and flight formation lead. That’s what I always practiced. It won’t do you any good to have everything on the aircraft fixed but still be back in the chocks parked with engines dead. We need to be at the runway ready for take off when the bird is fixed.
Engines started, we contact the tower and get permission to move our formation of 3 tankers towards the runway. The radar tech will meet us there. I tell the copilot to start the taxiing checklist. The other aircraft report similar maintenance issues. But they are all improving their positions, staying with the 3-ship formation.
Long story short, our three aircraft arrive at the end of the runway trailing maintenance crew. When it is time to take to the runway and “start the mission” by leaping into the air, the maintenance crews have done their jobs and are gone — and on their way to their next urgent need. Competence. Teamwork. Focus on the mission.
Our formation takes off on time. Other problems await us in the air. But we overcome them and offload the gas. On time.
First the litany of the fight suit. Then the litany of the pre-flight briefing. Then the litany of the aircraft walk-around. Then the cockpit checks, the before starting engines checks, and the starting engines checklist. Then there’s the taxiing checklist, the before take off checklist, and the take off checklist. Once airborne, there are more checklists and more activities, all leading to completing the mission of offloading our fuel to thirsty receivers. The checklists help you fell confident you have not forgotten the obvious as you deal with the here and now issues.
The key is the dedicated, smart maintenance teams and dedicated, smart flight crew members. I didn’t personally train all those folks, but I sure need them in order to get the mission done.
The moral of the story? Don’t get frustrated. Don’t waste energy swearing. Don’t get rattled with the march of time as your mission appears to be falling apart before your eyes. You’ve got a great team. Stay focused and it will work.
Just take each step. At each step, improve your position.
Need I say it? This lesson is not just for pilots.
There is a certain humility found in good pilots. We work to know where our shortcomings are. Checklists, for instance, help us deal with the human tendency to overlook important items. Humility helps you to remember to improve your position in everything you do. For a great reflection on pilots and humility, look here.