“Let’s go burn one.”
That’s John. We are at the vast F-16 repair hangar at Hill AFB. The year is 1992 and I am a USAF major and aircraft structural engineer serving my part time reserve duty under his tutelage. He a short, slight, ghastly pale, older fellow with decades of aircraft structural engineering experience. He is happy to spend his precious time showing this young officer the ropes.
He was one of the many heroes I had the great opportunity to work with in my career.
You won’t ever see a ceremony for John, or any sort of fuss over him. He was just “another civil servant”. And he really wouldn’t want any fuss anyway.
But he was a hero nonetheless. He was the quiet, do-the-job-right-every-time-no-matter-what kind of hero that most people never notice. He was the get-up-every-morning-and-succeed-because-it-matters kind of hero.
And that’s what he always says before we head to the cordoned-off smoking section of the hangar. “Let’s go burn one.” And he burns down one more cigarette.
Spending time with John in the F-16 repair hangar helps me to learn how regular, normal F-16 structural repair works.
That’s because, my war-time job would be to deploy with the F-16 squadrons, and if an F-16 gets damaged beyond the simple technical order fixes, then my job is to design and approve a fix. This gets the aircraft back into the fight without having to involve a trip to the repair depot in Utah. Sometimes the fix is temporary. It would only allow for one more sortie. That’s OK. Just so it is not one-half of a sortie.
Sometimes there is no fix that can be made. That’s the engineer’s decision too.
Basically, I am the repair depot, deployed to the front lines. And my signature means something. So I had better know what I’m doing.
Back at his desk, in the offices above the hangar floor, John says: “Here’s the damage, Charlie.” He shows me the write-up. “And here’s the engineering drawing of that section. But let’s go see for ourselves.” We check the tail number and location and head down the stairs to the hangar floor.
We join the civilian aircraft repair technicians at the aircraft. They are working on a different problem as they await our design. A lot of what they do is routine depot inspections and periodic maintenance scheduled at sufficiently short intervals to catch any developing issues with the flightworth-ness of the aircraft. Depot repair is like your annual physical that way.
They keep our fighting force alive.
F-16s “pull a lot of g’s” and can sometimes smack the runway pretty hard. Regular wear and tear is a concern. Also of concern is damage you cannot see — cracks in important structural members. They look for those. If found, we fix them. Sometimes we find enough of one kind of crack that we put the whole fleet through a scheduled fix before the cracks appear on all the aircraft.
Too bad we can’t always do that with people.
After brief hellos, the techs disappear to the other side of the jet as John and I look at the damage. There is a bit of aircraft skin and a bit of underlying structure that has been torn. From the location, maybe some piece of maintenance machinery had bumped the fuselage tearing a hole?
“What’s underneath that?” I ask John.
“Not much of anything, according to the drawing, and that’s what I’m seeing'” He replied as he shone a flashlight into the crack.
Simple rip. Simple repair.
Aircraft are designed to maintain their structure by transferring their loads to the outer skin. The loads appear on the skin as tension, pulling at the outer aluminum (or composite, or whatever) skin of the aircraft. Most repairs simply replace the lost material with similar material of similar strength — being careful not to create a zipper effect with your repair rivets. Rivets placed too close just weaken the metal and it tears between the rivets.
In this, and in other ways, we have to be careful not to make the problem worse.
We head back to John’s desk to draw up our repair plans, but not before “burning another one”.
After getting the repair design to the techs, there is time for another cigarette: “Let’s burn one” John says. He always says that.
“Here’s an important lesson, Charlie. Now that the techs have made the repair, we need to go look at it and see what they actually did. They never actually carry out our design — or very seldom. At least you can’t just walk away. You always need to see what they did. You are responsible, not them. It’s your signature.”
Sure enough, things did not proceed according to plan. We took measurements. Ran some numbers.
We decided our fix, as realized by the techs, would be OK.
But not before burning another one.
* * * *
About a year later, I was back at the F-16 System Program Offices working on a different task. The boss told me that John had not left the hospital this time. He had passed.
“Yeah” I said. “He was terminal when I was working with him.” I said.
Sometimes there is just no fix that can be made.