Their weapons are tools -- wrenches, rivet guns and an assortment of other devices.
But in an age when every penny counts, a group of Robins Air Force Base workers in the 561st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron saved the Air Force almost $50 million and prevented the loss of a critical fighter aircraft.
Last year, an F-15E suffered catastrophic damage when a bird was ingested into the jet’s left engine. The bird carcass wreaked havoc inside the F100-220 engine, propelling turbine blades in all directions. A damaging fire erupted when an errant blade severed a fuel line.
Only skillful airmanship enabled the pilot to land the Eagle on the flightline at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. But what remained did not resemble a front-line fighter. The entire aft fuselage bore holes the size of softballs and the gutted, burned section was damaged beyond repair. The future for tail number 87-188 appeared to be ended.
But that was before the 561st became involved. A handful of workers remembered repairing an F-15 with similar damage years ago and the decision was made to see if that act could be repeated.
The aircraft, actually assigned to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., was shipped to Robins via flatbed trailer, arriving in October of 2010.
A check of the supply system showed two aft fuselages were available and one was ordered. And it worked out that production techniques used by the manufacturer, Boeing Corporation, made repair more feasible.
Ed Fuller, the 561st planner who worked the project, said the damaged aft section could be separated from the front part of the aircraft at fuselage station 626.
“That’s the natural splice point,” Fuller pointed out. “When the factory puts the aircraft together, there are three sections that are mated. The aft-to-center-section mating point is at 626.”
Because of that natural junction point, a number of systems, including aft wiring, were “plug and play.” That helped, but a number of other factors required more deft handling.
“It was very precise work,” stressed George Reid, 561st deputy director. “The plane had to be optically aligned and great skill and expertise were needed to mate the two sections.”
Other components, including hydraulic lines, had to be cut and reconnected.
One problem came with the engine bays. The replacement aft fuselage was configured to accept -229 engines. The Seymour Johnson wing, including the damaged aircraft, only fly -220 engines.
“We didn’t want to send them an oddball. They couldn’t support it,” said Fuller. “So we had to modify the new aft body to accept the -220. We had to do a few structural changes but nothing major. Engineering was real good to work with, showing us what we needed to do and getting the fixes we needed.”
Reid said when they first approached the workforce with the project, they were enthusiastic.
“They took it as a challenge,” he said. “There is a lot of pride out here. No one else in the world could have done what they did. Even Boeing would not have taken on that challenge.”
After 14 months, 10,000 man hours and about $2.2 million in expenditures, tail number 87-188 was ready for ground and flight testing.
“We had to go through the functional tests,” Reid said. “We had to treat it like a programmed depot maintenance aircraft.”
He said the test pilots never questioned the quality of the repair.
“We have a lot of integrity here,” the deputy director pointed out. “Those pilots put their lives in our hands every day. We make sure those airplanes are safe.”
The flight testing proved the quality of the repair.
“It only took two (functional test flights) before it came back code one,” Reid said proudly.
So it was an emotional day in January when the Seymour Johnson bird was ready to head home.
“Every one of those maintenance guys was standing on the runway the day it departed,” he said.
As for Seymour Johnson? “I think they are very pleased with the final product,” Reid noted. “We get feedback from customers on a regular basis and they are very pleased with that aircraft.”