It was the ride of my life

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Rogelio Guerra
  • 433rd Maintenance Squadron
In 1979, I was fresh out of technical school and in my first assignment working maintenance for fighter jets. After landing at 11 p. m. the pilot reported two discrepancies in the fighter jet, evidence of leaking hydraulic fluid and oil. By this time we were cleaning the shop, turning in tool boxes and leaving for the day. The call came from Operations, requesting another jet for an additional sortie; the broken jet was needed for a launch at 6 a.m. the next morning. Now the pressure was on to fix the broken aircraft and where the problems started.

To troubleshoot a hydraulic leak, you can use ground equipment to apply pressure as you search for the leak. But another solution is to do an engine run and let the engine provide hydraulic pressure. Since the aircraft needed an engine run to look for the oil leak, the production superintendent decided to save time by running the engine to search for both leaks.

The production superintendent assigned us -- a 7-level, engine run-qualified technician, a 5-level engine troop and myself as the 3-level hydraulic technician -- as the late crew to fix that jet by the next morning. As he walked to the parking lot, he made it clear to the 7-level that he was in charge of "greening" the bird, or checking its fitness for flight; we would fix it for the morning launch before we went home. I left the empty squadron -- it was 1 a.m. and a ghost town by now -- and headed to the aircraft with a tow tractor and a tow bar, thinking that we would have to tow the aircraft to the engine run area.

However, the 7-level told me to remove the tow tractor from the front of the jet; he was going to run engines in the current spot. He said he would do an idle run and wouldn't need to tow the aircraft. Besides, he explained, this will save at least one hour of towing to the engine run area. I questioned his decision, but since I was only a 3-level troop, saving time sounded good to me. Besides, it was a routine engine run; what could possibly go wrong?

After installing the engine screens, the 7-level technician started the engine and idled the jet. We opened the fuselage access doors and started looking for the leaks. After 15 minutes, the 5-level engine technician signaled the 7-level troop to increase the engine power; he wanted to increase the oil pressure to find the leak. As the 7-level engine technician increased the engine power to 80%, I could feel the power of the engine in my chest as I stood in the right wing, looking inside the fuselage access doors. I could feel the aircraft squatting down due to the thrust--and that's when it happened.

After a few minutes at 80% power, the aircraft unexpectedly jumped chocks and lurched forward toward an aircraft hangar barely 50 yards away. The 7-level technician frantically tried to turn the aircraft away from the hangar, but the tow bar was still attached to the nose, preventing him from turning the aircraft. He pumped the brakes furiously to stop the jet, unaware then that the hydraulic leak was in the brake system, resulting in a complete brake failure. I held on for dear life as I took the ride of my life and prepared to collide into the hangar.

Fortunately, the aircraft stopped short of hitting the hangar. During the ride of my life, I had lost my grip and fallen off the wing as the aircraft stopped and, amazingly, only suffered minor bruises and scratches. But the 5-level technician wasn't so lucky: he had been dragged for 50 yards underneath the aircraft, resulting in burns on his hands and numerous scrapes.

Afterward, the Safety Investigation revealed these problems: no maintenance management oversight; performing an engine run outside the engine-run area; not using technical orders; and not securing the aircraft using tie-down chains prior to engine run.

Saving time, using short-cuts, working under pressure and working long hours are always part of the aircraft maintainer's life on the ramp. But, as all of us learned on that eventful night, none of those factors should ever come before safety. Disregarding safety procedures ultimately could cost a life -- your own or someone else's.