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Communication with the "Spirit of Kansas"

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- At some point in our careers we have probably had an event or person that has drastically changed our lives.

The event I am about to share opened my eyes to the lines of communication needed to effectively conduct our mission and just how much another squadron or group's mission helped me complete my own.

Unfortunately, I happened to have the distinction of being the Aircraft Maintenance Unit Officer In-Charge for the most expensive aircraft mishap in aviation history.

On Feb. 23, 2008, the B-2 aircraft, "Spirit of Kansas", crashed on takeoff at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. The jet was scheduled to take off and return to Whiteman Air Force Base following a 5-month deployment supporting United States Pacific Command's Bomber Forward Presence. At the time of the crash, I was at Whiteman Air Force Base, having just returned from a deployment to Kuwait less than three weeks earlier. That night, at about 6 p.m., I walked into the officer's club to meet with friends I hadn't seen for five months. About five minutes after I arrived, we received the phone call that we'd lost a jet. Soon thereafter, the flightline was shut down early for a roll call. Everyone knew something was wrong, because we never stopped maintenance on a Friday night before 8 p.m.

Statistically speaking, it was bound to happen sometime. But, after 19 years of safe flight, no one expected to lose a B-2. As every dedicated crew chief or maintainer will tell you, the aircraft they work on means a lot to them. I can say with certainty that the "Spirit of Kansas" has definitely left its mark on me. My first unforgettable memory of this particular aircraft was recovering it in Darwin, Australia, as the first B-2 to land on that continent. Incidentally, Col. William Eldridge, the current 28th Operations Group commander, just happened to be the pilot for that sortie. And the memory of that event kept playing through my head as I was briefing all the maintainers on the mishap, Feb. 23, 2008.

Less than a week later, I was on my way to the island of Guam with 30 maintainers and engineers to maintain the remaining three aircraft until they were released, re-deploy our 150 deployed maintainers, help the safety and accident investigation boards and recover the aircraft remains. The immensity of the recovery was daunting and required coordination with numerous agencies within the wing and Department of Defense. Despite the time zone differences, there was constant communication with the 509th Bomb Wing, 13th Air Force, Pacific Air Forces, Air Mobility Command, Air Combat Command, Air Force Materiel Command, Air Force Research Labs, Air Force Surgeon General's Office, U.S. Navy, Pacific Command, United States Transportation Command and Northrop Grumman. If you've ever heard the term, "it's a small Air Force," it applies here- as our current 28th Maintenance Group commander, Col. Jim Katrenak, who at the time was the deputy maintenance group commander, was there to help mentor me through those communication challenges. For brevity's sake, I'll stick to a few of the wing-level agencies I had to communicate with most often.

When you consider those with whom maintenance communicates with most often, obviously the operations group comes to mind first. This case was no exception, as one of the most immediate issues we ran into was clearing the debris from the runway in order to resume operations. Luckily, Andersen Air Force Base has two runways and the crash site was primarily limited to one runway and the central taxiway. After coordinating a wing Foreign Object Debris walk with the Operations Group's airfield management flight, we were able to finally shrink the crash zone enough to reopen both runways. It took a few more weeks of work to completely open the central taxiway however, but we were able to avoid impeding operational B-52 missions out of Andersen at the time.

For some of the more long-term clean-up issues, the 36th Mission Support Group was there to do what they do best. Primarily, the 36th Civil Engineer Squadron was tasked heavily over the next 90 days to help support the operation. We utilized the fire department daily, especially when using K-12 saws and plasma cutters to cut into the aircraft fuel and hydraulic lines. I must confess, it is very satisfying to watch titanium melt like butter with a plasma cutter in your hands. The CE readiness section had to establish a chemical decontamination area for us, as we needed their help to get dressed and undressed in our chemical suits each time we went into and out of the crash zone- and you thought they only did that for phase II exercises and inspections. At one time we even called out explosive ordinance disposal after discovering unexploded items in the wreckage. The environmental section, in conjunction with the 36th Medical Group's bioenvironmental flight, had to collect air, water and soil samples, and coordinate soil remediation following the clean-up. We tapped the expertise of the heavy equipment operators who used bobcats and an excavator to remove major portions of the aircraft as they were cut up. Never before had I needed to communicate with civil engineers as much as I did then, and from that experience I developed a great respect for the variety of skills that squadron possesses.

The logistical coordination between the recovery crew and the 36th Logistics Readiness Squadron also required close coordination with PACAF, PACOM, USSTRANSCOM, and the U.S. Navy. We were able to box the remains of the jet into 34 International Organization for Standardization containers for transport on a U.S. Navy ship. After the ship arrived in the United States, it cost more than $100,000 to truck the containers from the port to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. for demilitarization. Security Forces were required to guard the aircraft remains all the way from the crash site until their arrival in Arizona, as even burned up portions were still considered classified. Accordingly, the wing had to coordinate activation of some of Guam's Air National Guard personnel to help guard the aircraft due to the 36th Security Forces Squadron manning levels as a result of their deployed operations tempo.

Without the expertise of the personnel in the other groups, the mishap recovery operations would not have gone as smoothly as they did. I've only mentioned a few of the squadrons that helped. There were many others such as Communications, Contracting, Finance, and the list goes on. As tragic an incident as it was, the loss of "The Spirit of Kansas" taught me the value of effective communication and coordination between all of the various groups. Only when you combine the talents from all of the groups across an entire wing do you achieve the synergy needed to get a mission done. Today you may not think you need other squadrons to get your job done, but one day, I guarantee you will.