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Ingenuity Keeps Combat-Damaged Planes in the Air

February 8, 1991

HAMPTON, Va. (AP) _ When a $32 million F-15 gets a hole shot in its wing by Iraqi ground fire, somebody on the fighter’s maintenance crew may have to chug-a-lug a can of soda to make a repair.

If a stabilizer bar is damaged and there’s no spare, the ground crew will just forget about sweeping those Saudi Arabian sands out of the hangar and cut off the broom handle for a makeshift rod.

When it comes to war and keeping planes flying, Air Force technicians are taught to use whatever’s handy - even if that means borrowing a part from the general’s jeep, says Capt. Gary Fletcher of Langley Air Force Base.

″The airplane needs to go into combat more than the general needs to get around. It doesn’t do any good on the ground. I think any general would agree with that,″ said Fletcher, who heads aircraft maintenance training at Langley, headquarters of the Tactical Air Command.

At Langley, aircraft maintenance specialists in electronics, hydraulics, fuel systems and other areas train for battle damage repair. For two weeks, the technicians are taught the art of the speedy fix. They get two days of refresher training every six months.

″We’re like medical triage in reverse,″ said Fletcher, a 21-year Air Force veteran.

Just as a doctor in combat triage evaluates injuries and sets priorities for treating the wounded, a war zone aircraft assessor looks at damaged planes, consults with pilots and lines up jets for repairs. The reverse part is that the least damaged planes get fixed first. With people, the most seriously injured are treated first.

Spare parts, of course, are the first choice for repairs. But in a pinch, mechanics use whatever’s available - even soda cans and broom handles.

″If it comes to the point where we had no sheet metal, they could use a Coke can,″ said Master Sgt. George Winkley, superintendent of aircraft maintenance training at Langley. ″If we’re out of parts, we use whatever we can get our hands on.″

Heavily damaged planes can become like junk cars, targets of quick-fix scavengers looking for parts to get another plane back in the air, Winkley said.

In case of a hole in the fuselage or wing, a piece of sheet metal - or soda can - can be cut to fit the opening and riveted to the skin. A special tape is put over the front edge to reduce wind resistance, and the repair is complete.

While peacetime aircraft repairs are strictly monitored by inspectors, and maintenance crews must follow detailed technical orders, ingenuity is needed for combat repairs, said Master Sgt. Joe Ramirez, manager of the battle combat training program at Langley.

Theoretically, an F-15 could wind up looking like a flying soda machine, but Fletcher said the lightweight cans are used sparingly. Ramirez said he teaches maintenance crews to use leftover ammunition boxes or even a stop sign pulled off the side of a road.

Inside the plane, a sawed-off broom handle or a piece of pipe can substitute for a metal rod, such as the front-wheel stabilizer bar. If a clamp is missing for a tube, mechanics can cut up a wire coat hanger.

Even chewing gum is sometimes used to fill small holes, but only, Ramirez said, as ″a last resort.″

The goal is to get the plane fixed and get it flying, and neatness doesn’t count, he said.

Winkley and Ramirez said the ad-hoc repairs don’t limit the ability of the planes to fly their missions. ″It’ll restrict some maneuvers, but it won’t hurt its performance,″ Ramirez said.

″We’re not going to let a pilot go in an airplane that’s unsafe,″ Winkley said.

″I don’t think there’s any problem that would arise that somebody can’t put a fix to,″ Fletcher said. ″If it’s repairable, somebody’s going to be smart enough to fix it.″

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