Jesse Lau, Crew Chief and IO
17th SOS Crew Chief, Nha Trang, Tuy Hoa, and Phu Cat, 1969-71
18th SOS IO, 1971-72
I was first stationed at Nha Trang with the 17th, and then we moved to Tuy Hoa Air Base, and then finally to Phu Cat. Things I’m going to share happened during our assignment at Tuy Hoa Air Base.
My first story might be called “A-Deck First”. A-deck on the AC-119 gunship is a compartment where the hydraulic fluid is stored. I was an Airman First (E-3) crew chief and one of my buddies, Walter Brinkman, was also a crew chief, an E-4 Sergeant at the time. We decided to check A-deck first in our pre-flight even though the checklist had A-deck listed in the middle of the pre-flight checklist. The reason we started checking A-deck first was because by the time we reached the checklist item, we’d be doing it in the hot sun. It was very uncomfortable checking A-deck in the hot sun. So, Walter and I would walk to the flight line before we were supposed to start working so we could check A-deck while it was still dark and cooler. That way we didn’t sweat so much. So that’s kind of a modification and a little creativity in productivity on how we did that job.
Another story might be called “No Fireguards Around”. We crew chiefs had a real problem. We were required to run the engines on every pre-flight primarily to charge the props. And very often, we didn’t have anybody to pull fireguard for engine start and run-up pre-flight checks. For safety reasons, a fireguard was truly needed in case there was a fire, but you could wait forever for a fireguard because we only had six crew chiefs and one extra person, a “floater” who was usually assigned to the aircraft that required more work to be done.
So, once in a great while, my buddy, Bernie Brinkman, and I might do our engine run-up without a fireguard. We’d get permission from the base control tower by calling them on the radio for permission to crank-up and run the engine, but without a fireguard standing outside with a fire extinguisher unit. Worse than that, once in a while, because of time constraints, we had to do some maintenance, such as adjusting the carburetor, and I’d adjust the carburetor with the engines running. I climbed out of the cockpit and walked on top of the airplane, over the wing, and over the engine to get to my work. Since the cowling was off the aircraft engine, I’d adjust that carburetor in the additional heat produced by the running engine while listening to the prop go “Woosh, Woosh…” The prop blew directly on me. The whole state of affairs could easily have resulted in a terrible situation had a problem occurred. I guarantee that we would have been given a court martial and put in jail if we had ever gotten caught doing this stateside. So, that’s another story that Bernie and I were guilty of.
One more story on aircraft maintenance was what I call, “Engine Clean-up”. After we were done with our pre-flight and engine run-up checks, and the engine was cooling down, we would spray what’s called PD-680, a solvent, to help remove the excess oil from the engine, which gives you a clean engine to see the oil leaks more clearly next time. Once in a while, we’d clean our engine up the ‘extremely unsafe’ way. Fueling the tanks, the POL truck would pull up and we would fill up the tanks on both wings. After I’d get done fueling on the left wing, I would shoot the fuel from the hose into the engine and clean the engine that way. That’s extremely unsafe, dangerous, and guaranteed to get you a court martial and jail time if you ever got caught doing that stateside. But every so often, we ran into time constraints, you understand. There was a war going on. In the States, there were three people assigned to one aircraft, but in Nam, you were all by yourself. So,…sometimes, we cleaned the engine up after the engine had cooled down from engine run by pumping a fire extinguisher can filled with the PD-680 solvent to clean the engine. We’d hold the can, standing underneath the engine and shoot all the oil off the engine. Now, when it came close to R and R time, Bernie did this one time and I did it twice to clean an engine. It was hard to focus on the job when you knew you’ were getting ready to go spend one week on leave after being in-country for nine or ten months. Well, we both made the mistake of not waiting long enough for the engine to cool down. We grabbed the can of 680 solvent on the side of the revetment and walked under the engine and started shooting, and “Woooooff”, a big flame would knock us to the ground. And then, I had to run after the fire bottle, the CB fire bottle, and try to extinguish the fire on my own, while the fire truck was called. All of this was caused by not focusing on the job and thinking about R and R. You know things like this happen in war time.
In fact, another incident similar to the ‘engine clean-up’ problem and thinking about getting time off for R and R comes to mind. One time, I left a “SOAP” tube in the aircraft oil tank by mistake. SOAP (Spectrometric Oil Analysis Program) tests were scheduled after a certain number of flying hours on the engine. You had to run a tube into the oil tank over the wing and suck out a sample. Samples were put in two separate bottles. But again, this was getting close to R and R time and I had trouble focusing on the task at hand. This one time, I was taking the SOAP sample and after I got the oil samples out and dropped them into the two bottles, I inadvertently dropped the long plastic tube down into the oil tank. Without thinking about what had happened, I buttoned up the oil tank and made sure the lids on the test bottles were tight. I turned in the oil samples and the Flight Line Supervisor asked, “What did you do with the tube?” I said, “Oh, no, I put it in the oil tank.” Well, guess what? I had to drain the whole oil tank, 55 gallons of oil, which is a real dirty job. You go underneath the tank and you’ve got to remove the transmitter that measures the quantity. I had to drain that whole thing and then put it all back together and fill it all over again. And I had oil all over me after that half-day job was done.
I just wanted to share a few exploits of the maintenance people and some of my experiences as a Crew Chief. Being someone who has 130 plus combat missions, I could have shared my stories as an Illuminator Operator and as a Right Scanner, but I wanted to take time to honor the maintenance people.