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166th Airlift Wing fuel cell maintainers: High places and tiny spaces aren’t for the faint of heart

Fuel cell maintainers of the 166th Maintenance Group.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Eugene Jackson of the 166th Maintenance Squadron, fuel systems maintenance shop demonstrates a supplied air respirator used by fuel-cell maintainers, Nov. 26, 2019. The respirator pumps clean air to the maintainer who is working inside a fuel cell. Often, toxic fuel vapors can displace oxygen inside the fuel cell. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Mr. Mitch Topal)

Fuel cell maintainers of the 166th Maintenance Group.

Inside the fuel dock, maintainers prepare to perform fuel system repairs and maintenance on a C-130H2 aircraft, Dec. 19, 2019. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Mr. Mitch Topal)

Fuel cell maintainers of the 166th Maintenance Group.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Eugene Jackson of the 166th Maintenance Squadron, Fuel Systems Maintenance shop describes the equipment and training tank used by fuel-cell maintainers, Nov. 26, 2019. The training tank is from a decommissioned C-130 and allows Airmen to get hands-on training in a real-world situation. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Mr. Mitch Topal)

Fuel cell maintainers of the 166th Maintenance Group.

Master Sgt. Eugene Jackson of the 166th Maintenance Squadron, fuel systems maintenance shop prepares to re-seal a leaky fuel system access door on top of the right wing of a C-130H2 aircraft. Because fuel system maintainers have to work in high places, they are required to clip into a safety harness. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Mr. Mitch Topal

Fuel cell maintainers of the 166th Maintenance Group.

U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. William Fissel of the 166th Maintenance Squadron, ISO dock shop fills out a panel removal sheet in preparation to assist in the replacement of a leaky fuel seal, Dec. 19, 2019. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Mr. Mitch Topal)

Fuel cell maintainers of the 166th Maintenance Group.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Eugene Jackson of the 166th Maintenance Squadron, fuel systems maintenance shop reaches deep into the fuel system access door on top of the right wing of a C-130H2 aircraft to replace a leaky fuel seal, Dec. 19, 2019. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Mr. Mitch Topal)

Fuel cell maintainers of the 166th Maintenance Group.

A Delaware Air National Guard C-130H2 aircraft awaits fuel system repair and maintenance at New Castle Air National Guard Base, Del., Dec. 19, 2019. The Blue Hen emblem emblazoned on the side of the aircraft symbolizes the State of Delaware. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Mr. Mitch Topal)

NEW CASTLE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Del. --

(Editor’s note: This is part three in a series, The Wind Beneath Our Wing, stories of our 166th Maintenance Group Airmen. This story was written by Mr. Mitch Topal, 166th Airlift Wing Public Affairs.)

The fuel system of a C-130H2 is one of the most complex and critical systems on the aircraft. To keep the aircraft mission-ready, fuel cell maintainers work on parts of the C-130H2s that are dark, grimy, difficult to access and rarely seen by anyone else. They often work on top of the wings while clipped into a safety harness, or inside the tanks wearing a full-face supplied air respirator.

Working on an aircraft fuel system poses innumerable risks. First, and probably most obvious, is that jet fuel and its fumes are highly toxic and combustible. Though fuel is pumped out before maintainers enter the tanks, noxious fuel vapors can displace oxygen so respirators must be donned and safety protocols strictly followed. There is also a risk of getting injured or trapped inside the tank, which is a very small, confined space. Brackets and other structural components become obstacles that must be carefully negotiated, and there is a very real potential for injury.

“The first thing I ask anyone who is interested in working in the fuel cell is, ‘Are you claustrophobic or afraid of high places?’” said Master Sgt. Eugene Jackson, 166th Maintenance Squadron aircraft fuel systems repair section supervisor. “If they say ‘yes’ to either, they’re not suited to this job. Most of our training is hands-on. Until you actually go in tank and get eyes on the components and see what you actually have to do to gain access to the components, you won’t be able to perform the job efficiently,” said Jackson.

Finally, there are environmental considerations.

“We see more fuel venting from wings in the summer and more leaks from access doors and fasteners in the winter,” explained Jackson.

Venting issues are common in the summer due to rapid expansion of the fuel in a warm environment. If the tank is full during a cool summer morning, there’s the potential for fuel venting when the ambient temperature increases later in the day.

“Conversely, access doors will leak as seals can stiffen and shrink when the weather gets cold,” said Jackson. “To fix those issues we’ll either change out the door seals or repair any sealant that might be behind the access door.”

Besides sealing leaky tanks, maintainers remove and replace boost pumps (which supply fuel to the engines), dump pumps (which expel fuel from the aircraft in emergency situations), various valves, pressure switches, manifolds, access doors, bladder cells and other components. They also assist Guidance and Control (GAC) with wiring harnesses for probes and compensators for the fuel quantity system.

“Our fuel cell technicians are one of the finest examples of the silent unsung heroes that keep these machines flying. The fuel cell technicians of the 166th Maintenance Squadron are the best in the business,” said Col. William Roche, 166th Maintenance Group commander.

Technical training, proficiency in rescue procedures and attention to detail are requisite for safe fuel cell maintenance. The undaunted Airmen of the 166th Maintenance Squadron, who are always primed to work in small, cramped spaces and high places, are willing to do what it takes to keep our C-130H2s airworthy, safe and ready to complete the mission.