Crash recovery team demonstrates innovation through unique lift operation

51st Maintenance Squadron Transient Alert Crash Recovery team members conduct an airbag lift operation inside Hanger 18L at Osan AB Dec. 11. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Kasey Lynch)

51st Maintenance Squadron Transient Alert Crash Recovery team members conduct an airbag lift operation inside Hanger 18L at Osan AB Dec. 11. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Kasey Lynch)

51st Maintenance Squadron Transient Alert Crash Recovery team members conduct an airbag lift operation inside Hanger 18L at Osan AB Dec. 11. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Kasey Lynch)

51st Maintenance Squadron Transient Alert Crash Recovery team members conduct an airbag lift operation inside Hanger 18L at Osan AB Dec. 11. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Kasey Lynch)

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- Hanger 18L was abuzz with activity Dec. 11, as Airmen from around Osan gathered to observe a most unusual sight - an F-16 Fighting Falcon cushioned on large airbags, and stabilized with attached mooring lines, block and tackle.

The 51st Maintenance Squadron's Transient Alert Crash Recovery team was performing a unique operation in response to a real-world situation, which also proved valuable training for the entire shop.

When what started out earlier that week as a routine aircraft maintenance operation took an unexpected turn, the quick thinking and expertise of 51st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Airmen prevented a potential mishap.

Staff Sgt. Brian Kay, 51st AMXS, was performing a scheduled 200-hour drag brace wear check on the aircraft, part of a crew that also included Staff Sgt. Jeremy Roe, Staff Sgt. Anthony Stewart and Airman 1st Class Richard Vice, all 51st AMXS. When one of the three hydraulic jacks began to fail, Sergeant Kay's quick reaction and strict technical order compliance prevented the aircraft from coming off center and unseating itself from the jacks, which would have caused damage to the fuselage of the aircraft, said Chief Master Sgt. Brian Mullen, 36th Aircraft Maintenance Unit superintendent.

And that's when the Crash Recovery team became involved.

Master Sgt. Michael Chavez, 51st MXS Crash Recovery team chief, said, "When a problem is identified, my first action is to find out what the problem is and what the environment is like."

"We're always here, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ready to respond to all emergency incidents for any aircraft that touches the Osan flightline," said Sergeant Chavez.

"This was a very unusual situation for our team," he said. "First of all, it was a serviceable aircraft, so we had to be very careful to avoid causing any damage - usually our operations involve aircraft that are damaged, dirty, or in other less-than-optimal condition."

"Second," said Sergeant Chavez, "We don't get that many opportunities for lift operations, either in real-world operations or as training exercises. Most of my team had never been involved in either, so it was a great opportunity for them to have this experience - not only for the lift itself, but to see how much teamwork is involved in successfully completing a job like this."

"We wanted to have everyone from our team involved," he said. "MXS and AMXS were very accommodating and saw the value in using this as training opportunity for our entire shop."

Typically, utilizing a crane to hoist and lift the aircraft would be the preferred method, said Sergeant Chavez. However, as this aircraft was inside a hanger, we had to use alternative crash recovery procedures.

After exploring several options, it was decided the best available technique was to lift the aircraft with large airbags, then swap out the bad jack for a good one, he said. However, there were still risks involved.

"When you have a 20,000 pound aircraft and have to put it on what amounts to pillows, you have to worry about aircraft stability," said Sergeant Chavez.

The plan was to inflate four high-volume, low-pressure airbags under each wing of the aircraft, lifting it three inches off the jack, then to replace the failed jack for a good one. The airbags would then slowly be deflated, and the aircraft would stabilize again on three jacks.

On the day of the lift, it required an 11-man team to accomplish the operation. Six members used mooring lines, ropes, and block and tackle to ensure minimal movement of the aircraft, three members ran air supply and manifold to control the eight airbags, and one member swapped out the jacks as Sergeant Chavez directed the team.

The event started around 9 a.m., the airbags were inflated around 10:30 a.m., and the operation was successfully completed by 1:30 p.m.

"It went a lot smoother than expected," said Sergeant Chavez. "I was really proud our team - they conducted themselves professionally and efficiently."