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Biloxi Days: The Leak

I happened to be in the office of Chief Master Sergeant Ralph Johns, the Field Maintenance superintendent, when he received a call from Sergeant Wilkins in the aero repair shop over in Hangar 3. It was late July in a hot southern Mississippi summer. Sergeant Wilkins was annoyed because someone on the flight line had asked for one of his aircraft mechanics to repair a cockpit heater.

Johns: "It's July!"

Wilkins: "Exactly."

Johns: "You mean Maintenance Control actually passed this request along?"

Wilkins: "Yup. Heard it myself on the intercom."

Johns: "Which flight?"

Wilkins: "C flight."

Johns angrily hung up and dialed Maintenance Control. I could only hear his end of the conversation.

"Did somebody up there just call aero repair about a heater problem?"

"Why? It's fucking July!"

"I've never heard of a heater problem in July."

"No they don't. Just because some candy-ass pilot thinks it's cold?"

"Well, I'm not sending anybody out for that right now. Put it on the delayed discrepancy list."

"If you don't like it, have Major Smith (the Maintenance Control Officer) call the Lieutenant [me, Johns’ boss]."

Johns hung up. "Come on, sir. Let's go out to C Flight."

We arrived at the C-Flight flight shack which the flightline mechanics worked out of.

Johns: "Where’s Sergeant Atkins?" (Master Sergeant Atkins was responsible for the mechanics on the flight line. He did what we called "gas station maintenance" on C Flight, a group of about 20 T-28s out of the 80 or so we maintained: Fueling, run-ups, cleaning, tire changes, forms, etc.

Airman: "Right over there."

Johns: "Did you know one of your people just called for a heater repair?"

Atkins: "The pilot said it wasn't working."

Johns: "The pilot’s full of shit. Which pilot?"

Atkins: "Captain Bledsoe. That's him right there, taxiing in."

Chief Johns strode determinedly in the direction of Captain Bledsoe as he climbed down from the cockpit.

"Did you just report a heater problem — sir?"

"Yes, Sergeant. It gets kind of chilly up there at 10,000 feet."

"You are the first pilot I've ever heard complain about a heater in the summer."

"It's cold, Sergeant."

"Zip up your jacket — sir."

"I did, Sergeant. It was still cool."

"Would you fly that plane again if the heater wasn’t fixed?"

"If I had to, Sergeant."

"Well, you have to — sir. We can't be sending mechanics out here every time one of you officers thinks there's some minor problem. We’re behind on the heavy maintenance hangar work."

"Do what you have to do, Sergeant,” Captain Bledsoe said as he strolled back to the flight ops building.

Chief Johns went back to Sergeant Atkins and angrily told him to think twice about heater complaints in the summertime. "If your people can't handle these kind of things, put it on the goddamn delayed discrepancy list and if it's really a problem we’ll fix it during the next periodic inspection in the hangar."

A few days later I was in Sergeant Wilkins’ aero repair shop when a call came in over the intercom about a fuel leak in one of the wheel wells of a T-28.

"There they go again!” shouted Wilkins. “They’re always calling us for this minor shit. Come on lieutenant. Let's go take a look."

We arrived at the aircraft with the supposed fuel leak. Sergeant Wilkins, a tall, lanky redhead with years of aircraft maintenance experience, many of them with the T-28, bent over and then carefully stood up inside the wheel well and looked around. He then bent back down and came out from under the wing and said, "Step in there and look upward to your right, sir."

I bent over and leaned in trying not to bump my head.

“Now, see that fuel line a couple of feet above your head?"


“Ok. You should be able to feel it. Just reach all the way up and follow the line to where the nut is.”

I followed some copper tubing with my fingers until I felt the nut at the very maximum reach of my arm as I contorted to barely reach it.

“Okay, I feel the nut.”

“Tighten it hand tight.”

I tightened it up.

Wilkins pulled a small wrench out of his pocket and handed it to me. "Now take this wrench and tighten it as tight as you can."

I stretched and reached back up and awkwardly tightened it, all by feel.

"Ok. That's it. We’re done.”

I squirmed out from under the wing and followed Sergeant Wilkins over to Sergeant Atkins’s flight shack.

Wilkins: "Atkins! See this lieutenant here?”

Atkins: "Yeah."

Wilkins: "He just fixed that leak. Even this green lieutenant can fix these things. Are you saying your people can't even do what this lieutenant just easily fixed?"

Atkins: “We couldn't see the leak.”

Wilkins: “Neither could the lieutenant. You don't need to. You can just reach up there like the lieutenant did and tighten it. … No offense, sir,” Wilkins added turning to me. (I had not taken offense.)

Atkins: “How were we supposed to know that? Our policy has been to call a specialist from the shops if in doubt.”

Wilkins: “We have offered time and again to hold classes for your lead people on stuff like this.”

Atkins: “Warrant Officer Knowles says we should call the specialists.”

This went to the heart of the problem that Chief Johns and I had been unsuccessfully complaining about. The flight line had at least 10% more people than their manpower allocation called for; whereas the shops in Field Maintenance were at least 15% short in most shops. But even with this imbalance in staffing, Warrant Officer Knowles, the Officer In Charge of the flight line, and Maintenance Control’s Major Smith, continued to send their minor probs to the shops; even Sergeant Wilkins’ attempt to embarrass Sergeant Atkins by having me, the green lieutenant, do the "repair," didn't help.

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