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NEWS | March 13, 2013

Airmen make dirty job look spotless

By Airman 1st Class Tom Brading Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

The spaces they work in are often small and cramped with even less room for mistakes. They refer to themselves as the "Tank Rats" of the Air Force, and even though their careers can lead them down some dirty paths, their performances must always be spotless.

For the Airmen of the 437th Maintenance Fuel Systems Repair shop, squeezing through tight crevices within, and repairing the fuel system of a C-17 Globemaster III, is just another day at the office.

"We do leak path analysis which secures leaks, check for system component failures, fuel quantity system repairs, and every other intricate aspect and component inside the fuel tank and cell of the C-17," said Tech. Sgt. Sam Gordon, 437th Maintenance Squadron Fuel System Repair section chief, a native of Killeen, Texas, and a 15-year Air Force veteran.

Every day, aircraft from Joint Base Charleston soar through the skies, providing rapid mobility around the world. While flying thousands of feet above the Earth, one of the last things an aircrew needs is a defective fuel system.

Fuel System Repair Airmen maintain the fuel cells and tanks by removing, repairing and installing the cells and tanks. The Airmen also clean the cells and tanks, inspect for corrosion, cell deterioration, fungus and foreign objects.

"We make sure pilots are aware of their fuel load and ensure everything is functioning properly while they're in flight," said six-year Air Force veteran Staff Sgt. Michael Swingle, 437th MXS Fuel Systems Repair craftsman and a native of Aurora, Colo. "But, it's more complex than simply telling them. We have multiple probes that run from the many fuel tanks that send messages to the cockpit of the aircraft which will constantly keep the pilots informed and up-to-date, while keeping everyone onboard safe."

In addition to maintaining fuel tanks for the pilots, the shop also ensures the tanks are available to receive in-flight refueling. This is done through a variety of systems tests and checks conducted before the aircraft ever leaves the ground.

"Airmen in our career understand every detailed inch of the fuel system of an aircraft," said Gordon. "And, we have to because we're a vital part of a bigger picture, and that picture doesn't have any space for error."

Minimal space is also found within the fuel tanks they repair. According to Gordon, crawling through cramped spaces in the dark while wearing safety gear can be a challenge for some Airmen to overcome.

"If you get claustrophobic or are scared of the dark, this may not be the job for you," said Gordon. "But after wriggling through fuel tanks for years, you definitely get used to it. In all my years in the career, I haven't been involved in, or witnessed a serious accident. But, that doesn't mean we shouldn't prepare for one."

Airmen work jointly with the 628th Air Base Wing Safety Office and 628th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Department to overcome even the most unlikely situations and to maintain their professional training and knowledge. The last safety exercise was held March 7, 2013, at JB Charleston - Air Base, and involved a practice scenario of an unconscious Airman stuck in a fuel cell. Fuel Systems Repair Airmen were evaluated on their understanding and handling of the situation, sending a runner to contact the fire department and having an overall grasp on how to deal with the life or death situation.

"The training exercise is primarily for the first responders," said Swingle. "But, their response is what will save the life of one of our own, so it's safe to say we have a lot riding on their success."

Crawling through fuel cells can often leave Airmen dirty and smelling of jet fuel, but for the Airmen in the 437th Fuel Systems Repair Shop, it's just a tough job that someone has to do.

"The rewards of the job are simple," said Gordon. "We play a vital role in keeping the planes in the sky. For me, that makes it worth it. Our hard work is directly shown in the success of the mission every day."