Military News

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

F-22 crew chiefs play NASCAR with hot pit refuels

by Airman 1st Class Louis Velasco
477th Fighter Group Aircraft Maintenance Squadron


5/12/2015 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska  -- Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmy Johnson and Danica Patrick are some of the most recognizable names in the world of NASCAR - even among the most casual sports fans. Drivers are front and center after a win, and deservedly so. The critical work the pit crew performs, however, is sometimes lost in the shuffle.  A vehicle can stop for refueling, new tires, repairs or simple mechanical adjustments, to name a few, and be back in the race in minutes if not seconds. That speed can mean the difference between winning and losing the race.

Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson has its own version of a high-speed pit crew - we call them aircraft maintainers.

"It's about efficiency," said Lt. Col. Robert Churchill, F-22 pilot from the 477th Fighter Group, "Hot-pitting is the quickest way to get the most sorties and is the key to mission combat capability."

During traditional refueling, the jet is recovered, the engines powered off, and maintainers must perform a detailed thru-flight inspection.  This includes taking an oil sample and downloading the jets computer error codes to help with maintenance troubleshooting and repair. Of course, the jet also gets fuel. This thru-flight process, which is necessary before the jet flies again, is why hot-pitting saves so much time. Because both engines are not shut down, the jet can simply be refueled and sent back on its mission, reducing down time by two to three hours per operation.

During the first weekend of May, reservists from the 477th Fighter Group, a total force integration partner with the 3rd Wing, were part of that same pit-stop concept, refueling F-22 Raptors on the go and allowing pilots from the 302nd Fighter Squadron to return to their mission with minimal delay.

Technical Sgt. Gerald Ingram, a crew chief assigned to the 477th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, has participated in hot pitting on multiple airframes including the F-22 Raptor, the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the F-15 Eagle, throughout his 11-year Air Force career. Ingram said while hot pitting is a basic concept, "refueling on the go provides a faster turn-around for aircraft capabilities and is critical to returning the aircraft to its mission."

The 477th aircraft maintainers have a unique role in the Total Force Enterprise with the 3rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.  The full time Air Reserve Technicians are working side by side throughout the week with their active duty counterparts, assuring that the mission needs are met for the 90th, 525th, and the 302nd Fighter Squadron pilots.

More than an exercise in quick response, hot pitting helps members get an up-close view of each other in action, one they might not get otherwise.

"Hot-pitting gives the pilot a chance to interact with the crew chief'" Churchill said. "When we get out there to the jet, it's all business. Sitting in the jet getting fuel gives us a chance to see how our maintenance crews are doing."

Because traditional refueling occurs after the aircraft has been recovered and is safed by a crew chief, the risk of an accident or damage to the aircraft due to refueling operations is minimal. The chance to hot-pit refuel gives maintainers more experience working around a running aircraft, said Ingram.

Home station is not the only location where this important mission training comes into play.  As the F-22 Raptor serves in foreign bases, knowing how to quickly and safely hot pit is equally important in a deployed environment.

As in most time-sensitive operations, there are dangers associated with hot pits. Being in close proximity to a running jet engine is risky, so the pilot will shut down his or her left engine - to limit any injuries resulting from an accident. Because this engine shuts down and restarts, the aircraft needs one last check before it is set to return to the skies.

"It's like a modified end-of-runway inspection, but quicker. Just one last check to make sure everything is okay," explains Ingram. Despite all the things crew chiefs need to be aware of, a typical hot-pit refuel will only take 10-12 minutes if the aircraft are staggered correctly.

Waiting in line can halt even the fastest service, which is why aircraft returning to base communicate refuel orders with the Maintenance Operations Center; this necessary step limits any bottlenecking that may occur should too many jets be waiting for fuel at the same time.

"When pilots do a forward to base check, we communicate with ground control and tower and relay information to ground maintenance'" said Master Sgt. Chris Burgan, MOC superintendent. "If there's a problem on the ground, we can catch it.  This keeps the pit rolling."

It isn't hard to imagine crew chiefs may wish they could hang out with rock-star race car drivers and pit-crews. It might be a little harder to say whether or not NASCAR pit crew members wish they were refueling a 5th generation fighter jet. Despite their differences though, they both share the same goal and, when done right, they're off to the races.

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