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Senior Airman Timothy Pagel has experienced everything from Hurricane Katrina to considerably milder tropical storms during his time living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. So he takes a lot of pride in his role in maintaining the aircraft that flies in the heart of hurricanes that threaten his area and the rest of the coastal United States.
“Supporting the mission is exciting for me. I lived on the Gulf Coast since 2000, so I’ve been here for Katrina and others,” said Pagel, a 403rd Maintenance Squadron aerospace propulsion specialist at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss.
“The weather bird aircraft get a lot more erosion from heavy rains and hail. They just take more abuse than the tactical aircraft.”
Teamwork among crew chiefs, avionics specialists, hydraulic and electronic technicians, and the fabrication shop have helped the propulsion flight and 403rd MXS maintain and keep the wing’s 20 C-130J Super Hercules fleet safely flying.
“We’re here to maintain and repair any engines that happen to go bad and keep them flying as much as we possibly can,” said Master Sgt. Alan Paquin, a 403rd MXS engine technician. “Otherwise, those planes don’t fly.”
The 403rd Wing may soon lose half of its aircraft. The proposed plan is to send 10 C-130Js from the 815th Tactical Airlift Squadron to Pope Field, N.C., as soon as Fiscal Year 2014. The Air Force Reserve Command’s closing of the 815th TAS and relocation of the aircraft were part of the plan to cut $480 billion in defense spending in the next decade. However, the plan is to keep the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron’s 10 WC-130J aircraft stationed at Keesler AFB.
This is important because when the 53rd WRS crews deploy to support the hurricane mission, the maintainers go also. During hurricane missions, the 403rd MXS maintainers play a vital role, a fact that’s never lost on aircrew.
“They work long, hard hours, and while we’re in the hotel sleeping for our next mission, they’re out there turning wrenches in the south Mississippi sun. They love to see that aircraft take off and know their name is stenciled on the side of that plane,” said Maj. Sean Cross, a 53rd WRS instructor pilot. “All eyes are on these flights while we’re out there flying through a hurricane. These guys always have an aircraft ready for us, and they have a spare plane ready if something happens to the primary aircraft.
From a maintenance standpoint, the work is almost the same on the tactical aircraft as the weather aircraft, with two major differences, Pagel said. The WC-130J takes considerable abuse from 100 mph winds, hail and heavy rain as it flies through hurricanes and severe winter storms. Unlike the tactical C-130J, the weather plane has a metal pedal in the center of the propeller blade that slows down erosion. When more extensive repairs are needed, Pagel who is not only a traditional reservist, but also a full-time propeller mechanic, is qualified to make repairs on the propellers. Without his skill, knowledge and the propulsion facility, the Air Force would have to send the propellers to Sterling, Va., for specialized repairs.
“Just the cost of shipping one propeller from here to Virginia could cost several thousand dollars,” he said. “Multiply that by four or five props a month, and the numbers speak for themselves. “At Keesler, we’re a full-service maintenance facility. Whereas many other maintenance squadrons will ship the propellers off for repairs, we do all of that here. So we’re not only customer support with our product, we’re almost like a small depot facility.”
Pagel said the Air Force recognizes the success Keesler AFB has had in handling routine and incidental maintenance at the base level and is expanding that capability to other bases that have C-130Js.
At the other end of the experience spectrum from Paquin and Pagel are the reservists who are learning the job through the seasoning training program. One of the Airmen benefitting from the program is Senior Airman Aaron Augustus, an aerospace propulsion apprentice. He is more than two-thirds of the way through completing his 300-day training to upgrade from a three to five-level. It’s especially important for him because he was trained on Allison T56 engines and C-130H model propellers in technical school at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.
“It also helps with shop cohesion because we are interacting with the people who are here every day,” Augustus said. “If you just come one weekend a month, it takes a lot longer to receive the training to learn how to do your job. But by the time we come back (as a reservist), we’ve already trained, and it helps keep the mission going.”
As Airmen in the program, called STPers, learn the job, they rely on more seasoned Airmen and NCOs like Master Sgt. Donald Maloid, an aerospace propulsion craftsman, to supervise their training and guide them until they become qualified in the maintenance tasks needed to perform on the job. As the technology from earlier C-130 models have improved to the J-model, the maintainers’ expertise and skills have also made significant strides forward. “The technical field we’re in is not just wrenches and screwdrivers,” Maloid said. “It’s the technology of a jet engine attached to a propeller, and the knowledge needed is more advanced than what people might think it would be. Compared to its predecessors, it’s stronger, faster, flies further and is much more fuel-efficient. It’s a maintenance blessing to have the J-model today because it was designed with efficiencies that were lacking in the older models.”