The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local and State News

July 12, 2014

Aircraft safety by the book: Vance Air Force Base maintenance keeps planes and pilots flying safely

ENID, Okla. — If you are driving down the street and your check-engine light flashes on, if your engine suddenly sputters or if a tie rod snaps, you simply can pull over to the curb, step out of your car and call a tow truck.

The men and women who annually fly more than 70,000 hours in the skies above Enid and Vance Air Force Base do not have that option.

“It’s hard to get out and stand on the curb when you’re in the air,” said Todd Nahnsen, director of aircraft maintenance for PAE, the prime civilian contractor at Vance.

PAE’s mechanics are responsible for keeping the base’s 104 T-6, 45 T-1 and 66 T-38 aircraft in top working condition.

They maintain all parts of the aircraft, with the exception of the canopies and the ejection seats on the T-6 and T-38, which are the purview of the base’s egress shop.

Vance’s 71st Flying Training Wing is the holder of an impressive record.

The base’s instructors and students have flown more than 1.1 million flying hours since the base’s last major, or Class A, mishap.

That is in part due to the skill and dedication of Vance’s pilots and the base’s overall commitment to safety, but can be attributed in no small measure to the ongoing efforts of the base’s aircraft mechanics.

“Safety by the book is the main thing,” Nahnsen said.

Vance’s mechanics are a large part of the mission of sending more than 300 pilots annually off to their next assignments wearing a set a freshly minted wings.

“We touch every single one of them one way or another that come through this base,” Nahnsen said. “The folks here do a very safe job of that and are very successful in how they do their work.

“We’ve had over a million hours of incident-free flying, and that accounts for what they do day in and day out. They do a huge job here. Folks out here take great pride in everything that they do. It’s the folks out here that make everything happen.”

Mechanics at Vance must run the gamut from working on the Air Force’s newest trainer, the T-6, which first came to Vance in 2005, to the oldest, the T-38, which made its first appearance on the base’s flight line in 1963.

Their duties include everything from manufacturing replacement parts for the T-38s to launching and recovering training flights, Nahnsen said.

The component repair department can take drawings and specifications and create replacement parts, from large pieces of sheet metal to repair damage on a fuselage or wing, to small, intricate engine parts.

“We’ve got a couple (of T-38s) here that are one year older than I am,” Nahnsen said. “They are way older than the folks that are out there flying them. It is still a very good aircraft and still going strong.”

Parts for the T-1 and T-6 are repaired and refurbished under a separate contract, Nahnsen said.

Parts are inspected down to the microscopic level by the base’s nondestructive inspection lab, which uses techniques such as electrical currents and digital X-Rays to detect minuscule cracks in metal.

Mechanics specialize on a particular aircraft, while the component repair shop works on all three aircraft, Nahnsen said.

Two different types of maintenance are performed on the airplanes — scheduled and unscheduled.

The unscheduled work involves taking care of issues that crop up day to day, from a flat tire to a faulty radio, to an engine that isn’t quite performing up to specifications.

Then, on a regular basis, as per Air Force instructions, each plane is inspected and given regular maintenance. The most stringent of these is the phase inspection, during which each aircraft is removed from the flight line, taken completely apart and inspected. Nothing on the aircraft goes unchecked, Nahnsen said.

“Each aircraft has a different cycle and that’s all set up through the analysis that the Air Force does,” Nahnsen said. “On a normal cycle, it ranges everywhere from 150 to 250 (flying) hours. Each airframe has a different cycle.”

It takes about 30 days to put one aircraft through a full phase inspection, Nahnsen said.

“There’s a lot parts that come off and go through the inspections,” he said.

Some minor work can be done on the flight line, while more major fixes are accomplished in the various hangars. Each airframe has its own hangar, with the largest being the building that houses the T-1. Vance mechanics also sometimes take road trips to work on aircraft which experience issues during cross-country or out-and-back flights anywhere in the western United States.

Vance’s mechanics occasionally work on aircraft from other bases that land here, as long as they are T-1s, T-38s or T-6s. If another type of airplane has a problem and lands here, Vance provides hangar space but leaves the fix to a team from that plane’s home base.

There are three levels of mechanics at Vance, technicians, seniors and leads. When maintenance work is done on an aircraft, a senior or lead must sign off on it before it is released to return to flight.

A record of all work done on Vance planes is kept so each aircraft’s maintenance history is on file, Nahnsen said.

The work force in the Vance aircraft maintenance shops is a veteran one, Nahnsen said.

“There’s tons of experience out here,” he said. “Some of these people have been here since the mid-’60s. I think the oldest person we have out here has been here since 1964 working on this base.

“Most of these folks out here, the old-timers, were here when the aircraft was brand-new.”

The two longest-term aircraft maintainers at Vance are Lennit Williams and Fred Froemming.

“Those guys have been out here forever,” Nahnsen said. “In fact, some of the people out here, their dads worked with them before they retired.”

Aircraft maintenance is something of a family affair at Vance, Nahnsen said, with relatives often working together in the various shops.

“There’s a family tradition out here, also,” he said, “brothers, cousins, everybody.”

Mechanic Wendell Knouse, for instance, has a son-in-law and a brother who work in aircraft maintenance. His father worked there too.

For his part, Nahnsen has been at Vance since 2008. He retired from the Air Force after a 23-year career, during which time he served as an enlisted aircraft mechanic. as well as a commissioned maintenance officer. Thus, he has seen aircraft maintenance from the point of view of both the Air Force and a civilian contractor.

“As far as requirements, tech data, how you do things, it’s all the same, Air Force and contractors,” he said. “In fact, we probably add a few more rules as a contractor than we had when I was in the Air Force.”

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