Life as a B-1 maintainer

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Eric Bolt
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
There's a saying that "if it turns, burns, banks or rolls, a maintainer made it happen." These words ring true for every Air Force aircraft maintainer, including myself.

The first six years of my career were spent on the Ellsworth flightline. I worked in the following sections: inspection, refurbishment, wheel and tire, and repair and reclamation. Six years on the flightline gives you a pretty clear picture of how things run and what has to be dealt with.

Life as a B-1B maintainer is not an easy one. A maintainer's only concern is to put a safe aircraft in the air and ensure it's ready to bring the crew back to their families. At Ellsworth, the climate is a big concern by all. The winters can be brutally cold and the summers blistering hot.

Imagine if you were called out of a warm building in the middle of a South Dakota snow storm at 3 a.m. to fix a bad flight control actuator. In good conditions, this job will normally take a few hours. The wind is blowing, as it always is here, and the temperature is approaching the sub-zero high for the day. Now put yourself 20 feet in the air on a cold metal aircraft maintenance stand with your technical data and a bag of tools. As you begin to start the job you notice that even the wrenches have frost on them. It's no easy task to fix an aircraft with winter gloves on, so most maintainers use either thin mechanics gloves or none at all. Working in pairs is normally the best method at this point. One will work and the other will try to thaw out by a heater, and then they will switch. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

Summer is a beautiful time of year. The sun is out and the trees are green. Summer temperatures in South Dakota shoot clear up into triple digits. The flightline is typically 10 to 20 degrees warmer than the high temperature. Let a B-1 bake in the warm summer sun for a few hours and it can feel like an oven inside.

Refueling an aircraft can take up to two hours or more depending on the fuel load. A refuel requires that someone be in the flight station monitoring the automatic refuel/defuel panel or manually selecting when to open or close fuel tanks. Sitting in the flight station for that amount of time on a 90-degree day can make a sauna feel like an icebox. The task itself is not very demanding, but add the high temperatures and even the easiest task can become very difficult.

However, the climate is not the only challenge staring maintainers in the face. Maintenance is a hazardous job by its very nature. Moving parts, dangerous chemicals and tight areas make every day a challenge on the B-1.

When a B-1 flight control surface is commanded to move, it will and very little will be able to stop it during travel. The B-1's hydraulic system runs under 4,000 pounds of pressure. This is enough pressure to take off any part of a maintainer's body that happens to get in the way. Communication between maintainers is the key that keeps maintainers safe.

A B-1 pushes upwards of 120,000 pounds of thrust out of its four engines. This force starts with sucking air into the aircrafts four intakes. It is not uncommon to see a small cyclone form while the air is being sucked into the engine. This force will suck anything in its path down the intake, including any maintainers who should happen to walk into the airflow. Education and situational awareness help to prevent this from happening.

A typical day on the flightline may not be sub-zero temperatures or an accident waiting to happen, but a "typical day" does not exist on the flightline.

Throughout our careers, we are taught that with careful planning we can do anything. However, a B-1 maintainer cannot plan ahead at any given moment, any number of systems can malfunction on a B-1. When a problem occurs on the aircraft, the Air Force's mission cannot stop. B-1 maintainers must be able to troubleshoot, repair or replace any problem or part that malfunctions. He or she must do it as fast as possible to ensure the aircraft is ready to fly.

Maintaining a B-1 requires a team effort. Airmen specialize on specific parts of the B-1's anatomy. It takes a well-oiled machine with perfectly working processes to ensure the aircraft remains safe in the air. The Airmen on the flightline work with each other as a team to ensure the aircraft is serviced, inspected and repaired in accordance with Air Force technical data. Without this team effort, the B-1 simply would not accomplish its mission.

Even though the job of maintaining the B-1 may be hazardous and requires hours upon hours to maintain, when the tires leave the ground as the jet is screaming down the runway, that sound is all the reward that maintainers ask for.