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191st maintenance team keeps lightning-struck tanker flying

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing
Twice late last year, a crane rolled into a maintenance hangar and gently -- very gently - removed the vertical stabilizer from the tail of a KC-135 Stratotanker at Selfridge Air National Guard Base.

It was an unprecedented project that tapped into the combined wisdom of every shop, section and specialty in the 191st maintenance group, a unit long known with pride as the Michigan Six-Pack.

Typically, such work is only done at the Air Force's maintenance depot for KC-135s at Tinker Air Force Base. Because of the circumstances surrounding both procedures, 191st maintainers were called upon to perform a task none of them had ever done in their careers - and then a month later, to do it again.

In late October 2015, a Selfridge-based KC-135 was returning to base after a routine training flight when the aircraft was struck by lightning. The lightning severely damaged the vertical stabilizer on the tail and then exited the aircraft in the lower fuselage, creating 51 holes in the skin of the aircraft. Essentially, a significant portion of the aircraft's outer skin was melted away by the lightning.

While the aircraft was able to land without incident, the damage presented a conundrum to the maintenance crews: clearly the aircraft could not be flown again in its present state - but replacement of the tail's vertical stabilizer - or "stab" in maintenance-speak - was simply not done at the wing level.

"Really what we did was to get all of the shop together and to put our heads together on how can we get this done," said Technical Sgt. Michael Fiolek, a maintenance quality control specialist with the 127th Air Refueling Group. "We got the depot on the phone and started figuring out a way that we could get this done."

To load up a depot maintenance team - and all of their required tools and equipment - is a costly venture. The lead maintainers at Selfridge believed that they could make the necessary repairs to return the aircraft to flight worthiness, given the opportunity.

"OK, the first thing you have to do is make sure that you don't do any more damage," said Technical Sgt. Louis Jones, an aircraft structural maintenance specialist. "We didn't want to do anything to make the situation worse."

The tail of a KC-135 is more than 63 feet high. It was decided putting multiple Airmen on lifts to work on the tail presented a safety issue. Again, more phone calls and more discussion.

The 127th Civil Engineer Squadron's crane was eventually employed to lift the damaged stabilizer off the aircraft and to lower it so Airmen could safely work on it. But that brought up another question: where does one place a vertical stabilizer? 191st maintainers modified a work stand to hold the piece to allow them to work on it.
In the end, the maintenance Airmen said, removing the stabilizer was a relatively simple process.

"But because it was the first time we had ever done anything like, that, we were all pretty focused on the task," explained Tech Sgt. Brandon Squires, an aerospace repair technician. "We were working with hand signals with the crane. We had several people watching the clearance on the height of the hangar. Everyone is watching for safety. And, because it was something so different, we had squadron commanders and the group commander there, so you are really trying to be extra alert."

Once the stabilizer was off the aircraft the maintainers went to work like a swarm of bees.

"The entire maintenance enterprise was engaged on this one," said Senior Master Sgt. Erik Wolford, who supervised the overall repair. "Every shop was involved. We were on the phone regularly with the engineers at depot. We got parts out of the boneyard. We worked with CE on the crane. All that and there was no weak link. Every shop rose to the challenge."

After several weeks of activity to make the necessary repairs to the stabilized, the whole process was repeated in reverse. The stabilized was re-assembled and the aircraft was flown to Tinker AFB in Oklahoma for an overhaul at the depot.

"It was something none of us had ever done before - and then a month later, we did it all again," said Technical Sgt. Kevin Mack, an aerospace repair technician.

That's right - about a month after removing the lightning-struck tail, a "shudder" developed in the tail on another KC-135 at Selfridge and again the decision was reached that the vertical stabilizer need to be removed in order to be able to affect the repairs.

"Yeah, we got this," Mack said. "We had all done it before. I think it goes to show what a team, working together, can accomplish."

A bad bushing was replaced on the second KC-135 and it was able to be relatively quickly returned to service. The lightning strike aircraft would spend more than half a year at the depot and, in all, was not fully returned to service until nearly 10 months after the initial incident.

While 191st maintainers always regard the KC-135s at Selfridge with special pride, there's an extra dose of it today, to not only see those two tails on the ramp, but to see local 171st Air Refueling Squadron pilots take them out on the next mission.

"It matters what we do," Mack said. "Our job is to ensure that these aircraft are ready to go, ready for the mission. What we accomplished with these tail repairs,that carries forward into the next project.

"Hopefully, this never happens again. But if it does, we'll be ready," Mack said.