27 April 2007

Reflections: The Resurrection of BuNo 160992 (Conclusion)

Part I

Part II

Part III
Standing up and stretching after what had seemed an eternity on this C-141 flight, the LTJG was finding aches and sore points that he had previous not known.
As he stepped off the plane onto the bright tarmac, the colors of Norfolk in mid-spring bloom came crashing in upon him. Having left for Iceland almost two months ago, the predominant colors in his life had been grey, white and black… the grey of the (it seemed) omnipresent drizzling overcast at Keflavik, the black of cinder dust and granules which showed up at the most inopportune times and the white of the snowfalls and occasional whiteouts when the Bluetails first arrived in Keflavik.

A busy two months it had been as well – beginning with alert launches not long after their arrival on a flight of Bears headed for Cuba and the pair they relieved on their way back to their bases on the Kola (‘Heh,’ he thought, ‘Cuba to Kola in mid-winter, they had to be loving life at the moment…’). His QA Senior Chief had barely stepped off the plane when he had an accident that broke his ankle and required a medevac back to the states for some serious orthopedic surgery. That was the bad news; the good news was his LPO had stepped up admirably into the position as acting CPO and was going gangbusters. His AE QAR though, that was an eval he was not looking forward to writing. At least with his QASCPO back here in Norfolk though, there was some serious QA oversight which could be devoted to 160992’s work.

Ah yes, the “science project” as his JO “buds” back in Kef were wont to pull his chain about. Delivered to the squadron on the eve of an unplanned deployment to Iceland, 160992 was indeed the sorriest looking E-2 anyone had laid eyes on. Damaged in an encounter between a turning prop and chock cart, it had been patched but left to be picked over for spare parts for several months, until it attained SPINTAC status. At that point the RAG had said “no mas” and the Wing, ever helpful, had dropped it on the Bluetails. A maintenance det had been left behind to work the reconstruction and eventually word came from Norfolk it was ready for flight. He had been tabbed early on as the “stunt mole” (Post Maintenance Check Flight NFO) and sent back with the Safety Officer (SO, slated to move up as the next MO in a month) to do the PMCFs and ferry it up to Iceland. Joining them would be a stash from the Wing, an O-4 post department head type who had just been selected for command and O-5.

Blinking at the bright sun and riot of greens, pinks, reds and whites that made up the Norfolk spring, he joined up with the SO and his wife in the baggage claim – they were going to give him a lift back to the “ranch” in Va Beach. First things first though, and that was a stop by the squadron to see the project.

In the far corner of the old seaplane hangar he found a solitary E-2 parked – all the other squadrons were on workups or deployed in one form or another – and yet the object that presented itself was about as far from the pigeon encrusted, engineless, gutted hulk that had been dragged over to the squadron spaces back in January. The guys had indeed been busy and 015 had cleaned up incredibly well. Stepping into maintenance control they were greeted by his QA SCPO who indicated they were ready for the first functional checkflight in the AM. Contacting the guest pilot, they all agreed to a 0800 brief and 0930 go for a profile A (basic checkout of flight controls and engine auto feather – the heavy duty checklists would follow if this was successful). Making a mental note, the JG planned to arrive a good hour earlier to do a thorough read on the (very thick) ADB (Aircraft Discrepancy Book) – the compilation of the ills and faults of the aircraft. This would be the kind of situation that either went exceptionally well or would be the source of much harrumphing on the part of Grampaw Pettibone in some future issue of Naval Aviation News, and he wanted to ensure the deck was stacked in favor of the former.

The next day dawned bright and clear – perfect flying weather and especially so for the PMCF. While the pilots were over at base ops getting weather and filing, he paged through each of the gripes in the book, back to front as was his custom to see things in chronological order. Again he had received a lot of grief from his fellow JOs, because after all, “you only need to check the last 5 gripes.” Problem was if you did that, you stood to lose awareness on any developing trends and if there was one skill an E-2C NFO needed to acquire, it was having a good handle on the complex systems under his charge and how to trouble shoot them quickly, effecting rapid repairs if possible.

Man-up was uneventful, save for a much longer than normal pre-flight by all involved (as the sole NFO, he was responsible for three pre-flights that would normally be conducted by the CICO, RO/FT and ACO individually. The aircraft had been low- and high-powered several times to ensure there were no leaks and start/shutdown would be normal, but it still sent a thrill down his spine as first one, then the second engines were fired up and the aircraft began to come to life. Deep inside, part of him was disappointed that none of the doubters back in January were on hand today to see 015 retake the skies.

Taxi, take-off and climb-out to station (the Hummer Track – a piece of airspace that paralleled the NC coastline along the Outer Banks and used for training purposes by E-2 squadrons) were normal as he kept one eye on the vapor cycle (equipment cooling system) and another outside the aircraft looking for – what? Leaks? A panel not quite secure? It wasn’t like he could see more than 15% of the airframe anyway…the radar and rest of the system would have to wait until a future flight when the airframe and engines had been judged to be “OK”

Midway through this revere, Ray (the guest pilot) came up on the ICS in his deep Carolinian drawl “CICO, Flight – hey Will, take a look at the starboard nacelle and let me know if you see anything…”

“Umm, roger flight, looking, but I’m not sure…”

He never had the chance to complete the sentence when all of a sudden a huge area of brown liquid suddenly appeared and began spreading rearward.

“Flight, CICO, lots of oil on the nacelle – gees, looks like someone turned a fire hose on it…”

“Got it – thanks, we’re shutting down the starboard engine and RTB”

“Norfolk Approach, AG 015 declaring an emergency. We are single engine and returning to NAS Norfolk, requesting the short field gear.”

While the pilots coordinated the return to Norfolk, he jumped on the radios in back to get the maintenance crew to meet them

“Speedy base – Bluetail 015’s returning to base, single engine. Right engine has a massive oil leak – please pass to my maintenance control.” (Speedy base – Speed Demon base – was Wing 12)

Back on deck (*sigh* ‘another field trap – counting all the ones up in Kef I ought to be close to field centurion, or so it seemed’ he thought) and a slow taxi back to the squadron spaces, the once clean nacelle now a definite shade of brown thanks to the oil. The left engine was barely shut down and the prop stopped before the power plants guys were all over the starboard nacelle – work stand in place, panels coming off. Everyone obviously was thinking the same thing – a fitting had failed or a hose had come off – nothing else could account for the sudden appearance of so much oil in such a short period of time.

After about 30 minutes, most of it spent cleaning excess oil from inside the nacelle, the power plants rep came into maintenance control.

“Senior, I can’t find anything wrong on that engine – we’ve cleaned it up real good, checked all the fittings and lines and everything is solid – no indication of where the leak came from.”

“OK, finish it up and we’ll run some low and high-power checks this afternoon and try again tomorrow – sound OK sir?” he asked the SO.

“Sure thing senior – I’ll stay and do the turns with you all.”

The next day was a carbon copy of the previous and brief, pre-flight and man-up all pretty much mirrored yesterday’s, save for extra attention paid to the starboard engine and nacelle. The mechs had run multiple low and high power turns the previous evening and the inside nacelle remained dry as a bone.

Climbing out to station, the LTJG was peering at the starboard nacelle, as if daring it to repeat yesterday’s faux pas. Just as the transfer to Norfolk departure was being made – there, it couldn’t be, but there it was – a thin ribbon of brown oil started to spread from one of the nacelle vents and just as he started to call the front, they beat him to it.

“CICO, Flight…”

“Flight, CICO. I’ve got the beginning of what looks like a small leak from the starboard engine…”

…at which point the firehouse came on again and the nacelle rapidly turned light brown. Again.

“Got it”

Norfolk approach, Navy Alfa Golf 015 declaring an emergency…” ‘Déjà vu all over again’ thought the disheartened CICO. Norfolk, of course, was less than amused.

“Alfa Golf 015, weren’t you guys the same ones yesterday who had the same problem?”

The rebuke settled like the big fat elephant it was on the shoulders of the crew. After a suitably pregnant pause, the front end replied with a “Roger” to which the controller replied that he hoped we’d get it fixed for sure before coming out again.

“Roger Norfolk, we *are* working it” replied the SO replied in a tone that clearly carried a “don’t screw with me now” quality.

Back on deck and with the panels removed, the aircrew and mechs clustered around the offending engine as others began wiping off the excess oil.

“Boss, we’ve got a problem” the QACPO was saying “Don’t have any spare engines over at AIMD – they’ve all gone out to the fleet and the backlog that are AWP (awaiting parts) is such that one won’t be ready for issue for a month.”

That bit of bad news settled like a rock in a pond on the assembled party. As the mechs reviewed the steps they had taken earlier in checking sources, the Allison tech rep, a wizened elf whose knowledge of the T-54 was already the stuff of legends, stopped them when they mentioned checking the gaskets.

“Wait a minute” he said “let me see the historical paperwork on this engine”

Off to maintenance control they went and a few hours later the verdict was read. It seems this engine had gone right from production in the late 1960’s into a canister for storage. Due to the shortage of re-worked engines, it was pulled from long term storage, given a quick once-over and refresh by AIMD and passed to VAW-121 for 015. And therein lay the problem. In the intervening years, the metal gasket that was part of the accessories drive housing was replaced with a rubber one when oil pressures were stepped up. At sea level, there would be no apparent leakage demonstrated on low or high power turns, but airborne, and especially in a climb, the metal gasket would shrink enough to pass almost all the accessory gear oil, coating the engine and making location of the leak problematic at best and darn near impossible at worst. The good news was the replacement gasket could be installed at the squadron level, spares were on hand and it was a relatively quick fix that would be followed by a quick turn on deck for a leak check. Some quick calculation (and, the CICO suspected, some blood sacrifices) showed that they could get the first PMCF out later that day and still be on track for finishing the flights before heading back to Keflavik.

Indeed, later that afternoon, 015 was airborne again, and even with a different shift at Norfolk departure, it was clear there had been a pass down as the controller passed his instructions with a “hope you have the problem fixed this time” closeout. Good thing ICS transmissions couldn’t be heard over the radio, he thought to himself, as he listened to the pilot’s not so sotto voce rejoinder…

The rest of the week went pretty much without further excitement – some radar problems that were fixed airborne by reseating certain cables and boxes, a balky autopilot (nothing new in the E-2) and after a 5 hour mission profile on Friday, 015 was cleared for return to Iceland. From the tone of the CO on the other end of the phone, it wouldn’t be a moment too soon either as things were picking up. The spring thaw was bringing about not only a retching whiff of odor from the fish head plant up wind from the airfield, but also in flight ops from the Soviets. Winter was over and the Bears were coming out of hibernation…


Indeed, spring and Bears were in the air. Returning to Iceland via a still frozen route through Newfoundland and Greenland, 015 arrived in Iceland in time for one of the largest Soviet exercises witnessed. Palm Sunday, 1981 and almost every variety of Bear was out sniffing around the island – the usual Delta’s and Foxtrots were present but there was also a couple of Bravo/Charlies with their AS-3 payload semi-recessed in the lower fuselage, a Juliet (ESM/ECM variant) and even an Alfa, the original iron-bomber variant. Having an extra E-2 on hand (normal compliment was 4) provided increased flexibility and coverage. The guys over at the 57th FIS were equally busy as it seemed there was an F-4 or two perpetually in the pattern – landing or launching on a scramble. Eight hours later it was over and 015 had acquitted itself admirably – reflecting the dedication, hard work and yes, blood, sweat and tears of a small group of maintenance men back in Norfolk. Being first-hand witness to the fruit of their efforts convinced the young NFO that he wanted the opportunity to work with and lead this extraordinary group of sailors. As the years passed, he chose first division and then ultimate department head positions in aviation maintenance as his “ground” job. It wasn’t always rosy and to be sure, there were many a late night and long weekend spent working on the birds when the rest of the squadron was home or on liberty – but he couldn’t think of any other job to hold than that which kept him with the troop - his troops.

Over the years, there would be many other Hawkeyes to be flown – some notable, many less so. BuNo 160992 would eventually transfer from VAW-121 back to RVAW-120 from whence it arrived (special care was taken to ensure it virtually gleamed when it was given back), and thence to other squadrons. Curiously, it and the Scribe did not cross paths again (unlike 159107) and eventually, both were put out to pasture – him to retirement and 160992 to a dusty, final existence at the MASDC boneyard.