Out of the snow, into the sky

  • Published
  • By Delanie Stafford
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs
It's around 7:30 a.m. on a frigid February morning in eastern Nebraska. The sun is just starting to peek over the Loess Hills, situated across the border in western Iowa. Thousands of people slowly make their way to jobs where they'll spend the workday in the comfortable confines of an office building. It's no different for the majority of personnel assigned to Offutt Air Force Base, with the exception of Offutt's aircraft maintainers who battle the elements to keep Offutt's planes flying.

"Right before the sun comes up to about an hour after the sun comes up - that's the time the airplanes tend to be starting engines and getting ready to taxi," says U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Rick Brown, the production superintendent for the 83rd Aircraft Maintenance Unit, 55th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. "It's the coldest part of any day."

Brown is in charge of maintenance for RC-135 aircraft assigned to Offutt AFB and he's been doing it at Offutt for most of his 22-year Air Force career. Needless to say, he's seen his fair share of working outside in the cold.

"I remember my eyes watering up, and my right eye froze shut," Brown said. "It was frozen for at least 20 minutes until I went into the building."

Brown has also seen mild cases of frostbite and equipment failures caused by cold weather conditions. He says working on aircraft during the winter months takes a lot more time, manpower and patience.

"We have to get out there way earlier," Brown said. "There's a lot of moving things right before the crew gets there, and it makes it that much harder in the wintertime. It takes a lot of heaters, a lot of deicing fluid - just extra maintenance when it's cold."

During the colder months, heat is pumped into the aircraft to acclimate the jet for the crew that will be flying that day. If there's frost or ice on the aircraft, the maintainers have to use special equipment to spray a deicing fluid over the entire aircraft just prior to takeoff. This helps prevent mechanical failures during flight. If there's snow, it must be blown off in advance.

These tasks are all in addition to the regular tasks required to launch a jet under normal conditions, and the flat plains of Nebraska can make accomplishing them all the more harder.

"It's always windy here," Brown said. "A lot of guys can tolerate the super cold, but sometimes the wind is so unbearable that it just slows everything down."

The maintainers do their best to protect themselves from the elements; wearing layers of cold weather gear and face protection. However, gloves aren't always an option.

"Being an electrician and shooting wires, you have to have a lot of dexterity with your hands," said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Colin Roling, an electro-environmental craftsman with the 83rd AMU, who maintains the electrical and environmental components of the 135 airframe. "We'll go out there with a couple of guys, and one person's warming up their hands while one person is working. We'll keep rotating, trying not to freeze up."

When feasible, some of the aircraft can be pulled into one of eight hangars. However, with 29 aircraft in the wing's inventory, there's always maintenance that has to be done outside.

U.S. Air Force Technical Sgt. David Groff, a crew chief from the 1st Aerospace Maintenance Unit, 55th Maintenance Squadron, works on the E-4B, a modified Boeing 747 that serves as an airborne command center. There are four E-4B aircraft in the Air Force inventory and one must always be ready to fly at a moments notice.

"There are a lot of times we're out there eight, nine, ten hours - as long as it takes to make the airplanes fly," Groff said. "Everybody takes great pride in what they do here every day."

Nebraska winters can be unpredictable and cold, but for nearly half-a-century Offutt maintainers have battled through snow, ice and cold to keep 55th Wing planes flying, earning respect from the aircrew who fly them and the maintainers that have gone before them.

"They do a heck of job keeping [the E-4] flying, supporting who we support, and maintaining freedom," said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jerrod Williams, a production superintendent for the 1st AMU.

"They amaze me every day," said U.S. Air Force Capt. Alexandra Tomo, an officer in charge for the 83rd AMU. "I couldn't respect them more for the hard work that they do. They really, truly care about getting these jets in the air and making sure we give the aircrews a safe and quality product."