The '747' of the Air Force

It’s a good thing the Air Force doesn’t offer a public airlines transportation, or else they’d be out of business in a heartbeat.  Not to say that “Space A” travel isn’t a really good deal, because it is (if you have the time).  You can’t beat a round trip across the Atlantic or Pacific for $20 or less per person.  But it can be a little stressful (you’re pretty much travelling “standby”).  It turns out that the C-5, like the mighty F-16 at Cannon, tends to breakdown a lot.  Since the C-5 is a much bigger plane, they probably have a little more that breaks down.  If the C-5 is anything like the F-16, its old (for its intended life-span).  First, let me say it’s not the fault of the maintainers.  Maintenance does a pretty good job Air Force-wide. 

In the case of the F-16, they were first introduced “operational” in the Air Force around 1978.  The F-16 is already way passed her operational lifespan, and many programs are out to strengthen the airframe or add up-to-date avionics.  If you think of it in “people years,” the F-16 is probably 150+ years old, and is completely relying on plastic surgery to keep her running.  It helps, but the maintenance cost goes up every year.  Even then, the complete problem is not solved, as evident whenever we went long distances in the F-16: we’d usually have to leave 1 or 2 in some random location because they’d take a few weeks to fix (because of ordering parts, etc).

The C-5, in comparison, was first introduced “operational” in the Air Force around 1970.  So I’m sure that added 8 years doesn’t help the airframe.  Not only that, but the C-5 has 3 more engines than the F-16, has a nose and back door that opens and shuts, and generally has more of everything else (stronger, more complicated landing gear, etc).  So you can probably see why most of the military prefers to travel in a relatively new C-17 instead of an old lumbering C-5 (unless you want a few days sitting around while they repair it).

With that background out of the way, I had a helluva day yesterday.  Granted, I’m used to the Air Force standard of “go… don’t go…. go… don’t go…” when it comes to flying.  Usually it boils down to weather or maintenance and happens in the F-16 all the time.  Only there, someone usually has enough common sense to knock-off the indecision and tell you after an hour or so that either you’re going, or you’re not going (for good).

In the case of yesterday (maintenance) it was only a 25 minute fix.  Go!  Wait a minute, the 25-minute fix turned into a 1-hour fix because the plane was being refueled and they weren’t allowed to start troubleshooting it until it was done refueling.  Don’t Go!  But after refueling and starting the fix, it would only be about 30 minutes.  Go!  But wait, when starting up and running the self-tests to see if it was fixed, the hydraulics started having problems.  Don’t Go!  The hydraulics were gonna be about an hour, so midway through the process of fixing the hydraulics, they decided to start loading the pallets (cargo).  So a little more waiting… hold on, that took a little longer than expected… with a lot more waiting we sat around… and waited…  This started feeling like a joke.  After about 1½ hours, someone apparently decided to “launch the fleet!”  We started going through the check-in process and boarded a bus to take us out to the bird.  Go!

We got out to the C-5 and seemed to have caught the people out there by surprise.  Apparently, for some reason (I think to finish loading our bags and balancing it with the other cargo) they needed another 25 minutes or so.  Don’t Go!  The bus driver drove us back to the terminal, but then was talked into just waiting by the jet (from his boss over the radio).  Go!  So, like in NASCAR, we had made our first lap around the track and found ourselves waiting by the C-5 again.  We sat in that van for what seemed like hours (though in reality, it was probably about 30 minutes) when the pilot came up to the driver and discussed something with him.  Magically, the bus turned around and headed back to the terminal.  Why the hell is it going back to the terminal?!?!  Since the awesome people ushering us around weren’t telling us a thing (even after asking them point-blank throughout the day many times), we asked them one more time, “what the hell is going on?”  When I heard the answer, it was a “you’ve got to be shitting me…” literally.

So to get the “Go!  Don’t Go!” situation straight, the aircrew was in the “Go!” mode and were getting ready to take-off.  We were in the “Don’t Go!” mode and someone had finally stopped the pain and made a final call… about 6 hours after the original take-off time!!!  Are you serious?!?!  So why did we not get on the airplane after 2-3 maintenance hang-ups and being slipped 6 hours?  Well, apparently in all the maintenance confusion, the geniuses-that-be realized, right as we were about to board (6 hours late), that the damn shitters were malfunctioning.  Since there was about 19 of us trying to get onto the flight, I guess the aircrew didn’t want to wallow in our shit or give us piddle-packs or something, so they just kicked us off and decided to press (I guess the aircrew didn’t mind wallowing in their own shit… or they just figured they could hold it for the flight).  That’s fine and all, but you’d think that while the 6-hour hoopla was going on, someone would’ve caught the shitter problem and come to the conclusion that “hey, the shitters aren’t working and we can’t take all these extra people.”  Perhaps that would’ve stopped the rest of us from wasting 6 hours of our life going through the “Go!  Don’t Go!” rollercoaster we were on.  Someone just please make the call early, for crying out loud… I really think someone had an inclination of how this would work out; it’d be nice to know it.

So, it’s a good thing public airlines don’t use the same philosophies when it comes to maintenance, keeping people informed, and having the indecisive “Go! Don’t Go!” mentality.

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