Fuel Cell Airmen: Confined spaces braved and leaking lines saved

By Airman 1st Class Andrew Moua 2nd Bomb Wing Public Affairs

The long range and versatility of the B-52 make it the weapon of choice for providing deterrence, demonstrating U.S. resolve and combat operations around the world, but the jet could never leave the runway without a working fuel system.

Taking care of that responsibility for team Barksdale is, the 2nd Maintenance Squadron Accessories Flight Fuels Maintenance Section which is charged with maintaining the systems that provide fuel to the aircraft.

"When there are leaks in the tanks or components need to be replaced, we're the guys who handle it," said Tech. Sgt. Aaron Finney, 2 MXS Accessories Flight fuels section chief. "Anything from leaks, cleaning fuel tanks and testing fuel lines is our responsibility. It's a dirty job, but proper maintenance of these systems ensures the B-52H Stratofortress can continue to fly."

With many of the B-52's continuing to operate with components originally installed more than 50 years ago, quality maintenance of the fuel systems is paramount to keeping Barksdale's fleet aloft. The B-52 has 12 fuel tanks that can carry more than 300,000 pounds of fuel in tanks located in the aft section, mid-body, inside the wings and external tanks mounted on the wings.

"Most of our work involves finding and sealing leaks in the tanks. Because Leaks can lead to more problems than just lost fuel. Electric currents in the aircraft could ignite fuel or fuel could gum up other systems," said Finney. "The hardest part is actually locating the leak, believe it or not. The fuel lines run throughout the whole aircraft and there are thousands of places where leaks can spring up."

When a leak is suspected, the fuels Airmen must drain the fuel tank, ventilate the tank of toxic fumes, apply a soap-like solution and pressurize the tank. The pressure in the tank causes the solution to bubble through the leak, and once located, sealant is applied to the area and left to cure. Finney said whole process is time consuming and can take eight hours or more, depending on how much fuel had to be drained, the location of the leak, the amount of sealant applied, and the cure time of the sealant.

"Repairing these leaks is not easy," said Senior Airman Daniel Goodman, 2 MXS Accessories Flight Fuels Maintenance Section aircraft fuels systems journeyman. "There are extremely tight spaces we have to fit into to fix leaks or trouble areas, and sometimes to gain access to leaks we have to get other shops to remove something so we can get to it."

To prepare them to deal with these and other fuel related issues, Airmen learn their craft at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas where they attend a five-week technical school and are taught to repair, modify and diagnose problems with aircraft fuel systems. Once arriving to their duty station they learn the specifics of the airframe they will work on.

"Once Airmen get here from tech school, they attend a 30 day field training detachment to lean specific details about the B-52 airframe," Finney said. "Upon completing that, it's all on the job training until they earn Journeyman status. Upon attaining Journeyman, they are allowed to work on the fuel systems without supervision and are expected to be proficient at repairs and knowledge."

With the expertise and intimate knowledge of the aircraft's fuel systems, the fuels maintenance section is able to allow the B-52 to do what it does best by bringing strategic munitions to the battlefield from across the globe.

"We enable the B-52's capacity to loiter for extended periods over the battlefield," Finney said. "The effort myself and the rest of the Airmen put into maintaining the aircraft's systems definitely makes Barksdale's mission of putting bombs on target much easier."

As it celebrates its 60th anniversary this year the B-52 can definitely attribute some of its longevity and prowess as one of the most powerful aircraft in the Air Force inventory to the Airmen who maintain and ensure its fuel systems remain intact.