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Dirty Work: Fuel system repair

By Senior Airman Brandon Kusek 2d Bomb Wing Public Affairs

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It's a dirty job but somebody has to do it.

The B-52 uses a lot of fuel to fly its missions; the jet can carry 47,975 gallons. To carry this monstrous amount of fuel, it has a total of 12 fuel tanks, or cells, throughout the aircraft.

The men and women who maintain these cells crawl in and out of the tanks almost daily and can attest to their job being dirty.

"The smell is hard to get rid of," said Staff Sgt. Derrick McMichael, 2d Maintenance Squadron fuel system supervisor.

Located in the northernmost hangar of Barksdale's flightline, the 2d Maintenance Squadron Fuels flight is responsible for repairs and troubleshooting of the B-52s fuel system.

Tech Sgt. Mike Sizemore, assistant NCO in charge of fuel system repair, said his Airmen are responsible for fixing leaks, changing components such as pumps, valves and check valves and operational checks - which ensure components operate as advertised in the technical manuals.

"If we weren't around, the airplane couldn't fly," he said. "Leaks can only be temporarily repaired so much and if the components don't function correctly fuel cannot get to the engines."

This job is not for people who become uncomfortable in tight spaces. There are pieces and components inside the wings and fuselage that can only be accessed through 32 inches in diameter ovals which the Airmen must climb through.

Once inside, the spaces are so confined that it's a tight squeeze for an average sized adult male.

Time in the cells are another factor. Most jobs are not "get in, get out." Average jobs range from 1-2 hours up to 12-18 hours. The longer jobs are spread out over multiple shifts.

Staff Sgt. Donnie Echols, 2d MXS fuel system supervisor, said he's spent entire shifts inside the cells.

Spending this much time in the cells can be dangerous. Ventilation and breathing issues are a high priority for the crews.

The Airmen wear goretex suits, rubber gloves and respirators to protect them from the effects of the fuel and fumes.

The fumes, which could possibly make someone pass out if not properly protected, are the reason the respirators are required.

"Exposure (to the fuel and fumes) in general is a risk," Sergeant McMichael said. "That's why the blue coveralls and respirator are important."

Since the possibility someone can pass out inside the wing is high, crews must consist of at least two people.

Another high risk the Airmen have to be cautious about is electricity.

According to the fuel cell Airmen, though JP-8 fuel is more stable than its predecessor, JP-4; every precaution is taken to prevent a catastrophic mishap such as a fire.

To battle static electricity there are, "Rules about wearing jewlery - its not allowed. You can't carry a cell phone. There are plates on every door you touch to take care of any static electricity before entering the area and everything is grounded," Sergeant Nichols explained.

Another electricity source worries the fuel cell Airmen - lightning.

"Anytime we hear lightning within 10 miles we start shutting down," Sergeant McMichael said. "By the time it gets to within 5 miles we're clear of the jet."

Though Barksdale has two newer hangars that enclose the entire jet, fuel cell Airmen are sometimes required to work outside - even during the summertime.

Sergeant McMichaels said there have been tests done to prove that inside the cells it can get be 120-140 degrees during hot Louisiana summer months.

Though the fuel is drained before anyone can climb into the cell, there are still small collections of the JP-8 where it can't completely drain.

The fumes, which smell like diesel fuel, seep through the protective gear the maintainers wear and get onto their undergarments and skin.
Sergeant McMichaels said smell is nearly impossible to wash out of battle dress uniforms.

"We're around the smell a lot so sometimes we don't notice it," he said. "We go to the BX for lunch and people give us bad looks because we stink of JP-8 and don't even know it."

Many of the Airmen discussed the dirtiest part, but they came to a conclusion that the smell and bull funk were the worst.

Bull funk, as the Airmen lovingly refer to it, is a lubricant applied to all the nuts, bolts and rivets inside the cells.

"It's on almost everything and gets almost everywhere," Sergeant McMichael said. "You could wash more than 1,000 times and still not get all of it off."

Sergeant McMichael said he showers at work anytime he has to climb into the cells.

"I don't want to take that smell home; not to my vehicle, not to my house and especially not to my children," he said.

Sergeant Echols said one of the worst jobs is a cell change.

"When you change the cell, you go in and take manifolds off and fuel spills all over you, that's nasty," he said.

Confined spaces, the smell of JP-8 and bullfunk ... that's dirty.

Editors Note: The Bombardier is beginning a segment on the dirtiest, jobs Airmen do around Barksdale. If you know of a duty that should be covered in the paper, please contact us.