PITTSBURGH INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT AIR RESERVE STATION, Pa. --
C-17 Globemaster III aircraft are required to be thoroughly checked over every 180 days. During this check, called a home station check, each maintenance shop has a role in inspecting and performing preventative maintenance on an aircraft. An HSC is typically performed over the course of 8-10 days in a hangar, which allows the aircraft to be open for a long period of time without being exposed to the elements.
The 911th Airlift Wing’s most recent HSC presented two major obstacles: the base’s new C-17 hangar was not yet complete following the conversion from the C-130 Hercules aircraft, and health and safety precautions put in place in response to COVID-19.
The first HSC performed at their home base was a testament to the adaptability and resiliency of Steel Airmen of the 911th Maintenance Group, said Capt. Joshua Christopher, maintenance operations officer with the 911th Maintenance Squadron. On May 9, 2020, Airmen began their HSC out on the flight line while working social distancing, mask wearing and sanitizing into their procedures.
“Airplanes do not fare well when they sit for long periods of time, especially ones such as the C-17 which are intended for strategic use and availability, pandemic or not,” Christopher said. “Absolutely it is a stressor and should really highlight to the installation the role maintenance has in ensuring mission accomplishment as well as the dedication and resiliency of our workforce. The efforts of the maintainers stand as a justification for why we were selected to convert to C-17s in the first place.”
Staff Sgt. Holly Duke, HSC coordinator with the 911th Maintenance Squadron, said she prefers the check to be accomplished in a hangar to be away from weather and other elements that restrict Airmen from performing their duties. She said aspects of getting the aircraft ready for maintenance can take up to three hours, and an additional three hours can be required before leaving the plane exposed to the elements.
“Because we don’t have a hangar, we can’t leave the engine cowlings open, we can’t leave panels off, stuff like that, overnight because of the weather and the potential for high winds,” Duke said. “So we expanded out over a month instead of two week which is challenging in itself in addition to coordinating several different shops to work together which is already a challenge.”
Tech. Sgt. David Moser, C-17 aerospace maintenance advisor with the Air Mobility Command, has spent the past year training 911th MXG Airmen to perform these and other inspections.
“This is technically my first time doing an HSC on the flight line,” said Moser. “We’re literally going to rip an aircraft apart and put it back together so we can fly for another six months. It’s something that we’ve trained for at my prior units, but this is the first time that we’ve literally had our hands tied.”
With any first-time event comes inherent risk, said Christopher. Though they have spent months planning to face all the challenges that conducting detailed work in the open air can bring, it is not always possible to predict every potential unknown.
“In maintenance, we plan to manage risk ahead of time, rather than waiting for a risk to occur,” said Christopher. “We’ve become very good at asking all of the ‘what-if’ scenario types of questions, and implementing workarounds for addressing them while remaining in compliance with the regulations.”
The greatest risk comes not from the work itself, he said, but rather from Mother Nature.
“Honestly, it’s the weather that is the biggest challenge,” he said. “High winds, rain, and even snow this time of year is what will set back our scheduled plan, but we can adapt. Through proper communication, we implement changes to the schedule on a daily basis if needed.”
In the face of these challenges, Moser remains optimistic. He has five years of experience performing HSCs, and believes this particular one will be good for the Steel Airmen to have under their belts.
“It comes back to having people who are eager to learn and also to exercise their responsibility appropriately,” said Moser. “And with enough of the right people you can do extensive maintenance like this. You have all these different pieces coming together and it’s going to work out well.”
A home station check performed at their home station won’t be much of a challenge soon, with construction on the base’s new two-bay hangar slated for completion within the coming weeks, but in the meantime upcoming inspections will need to be conducted in Pittsburgh. Dukes said that while the May HSC was expected to be at their home station, the inspection of the base’s next aircraft was initially planned to take place at 167th Airlift Wing, Martinsburg West Virginia, but COVID-19 travel restrictions will prevent them from making the trip.
“We work really well with Martinsburg but they’re trying to protect their people and we understand that so it throws a little bit of a wrench.” said Duke. “But I’ve been talking to our supervision, we’ve been in communication for about a month and a half over this. This HSC right now took four weeks of planning before we even went into it so we’re aware of the situation and we’re dealing with it as best we can.”
Beyond planning for the inspection to take place outdoors, social distancing and limited manning were factors that needed to be addressed. Duke created a flow sheet to schedule to accommodate shops that didn’t have daily manning. She is also wiping down frequently touched surfaces at the end of each day.
“I encourage more people to wear masks. I wore a mask, because we had 20 people on this plane,” said Duke. “If I’m going to be in close proximity to somebody I’m making sure I’m wearing a mask, or I make sure and find another way to communicate with them without being in their face to make sure they understand what I’m trying to accomplish.”
After being with the 911th MXG for over a year and walking by their side through their transition to their new mission, Moser is optimistic about how the Steel Airmen will conquer this and any future challenges. He said the group as an entity has progressed exceptionally well, and they have a growth mindset, an eagerness to learn, and possess a hunger and thirst to excel in their jobs and positions.
Despite the daunting challenges that face them, Duke and other Airmen continue to see the bright side of their situation.
“I’m happy to be home,” said Duke. “We were in California, we were in Martinsburg, and we were in Wright Patt, so it’s been really nice. I was on the road a lot before we started HSE, we did a deployment and again I was on the road. So I’m happy to be home with my cats.”