22. January 2006 · Comments Off on Redball · Categories: Air Force, Pajama Game

I don’t know about launch procedures in other USAF commands, but in the now defunct SAC it was a special experience. Each maintenance squadron would assemble members from each shop waiting for something to break on a plane due to fly that morning. Generally speaking, telling the crew that they had a broke-dick airplane so just call it a day was akin to airbrushing a penis on Curtiss LeMay’s portrait where his cigar should be – and under certain circumstances such as a real mission or a SAC operational readiness inspection it was impossible.

Mostly it was boring and, in the below-zero winters of northern New York, very cold. The back of the van (which never had a working heater) was a pile of airmen from the Radar, Radio, Fire Control, Doppler, and Bomb Nav shops, stacked not unlike cats in a barn. To this day I can sleep under almost any circumstances as a result of that experience, and to this day I’d bet that the radio call “31 – Control, we have a redball for the radar shop on aircraft [fill in tail number for Broke-Dick Airplane]” would have me fully conscious in a matter of seconds. Early pre-flight problems were fairly easy, but when the aircraft is sitting on the apron ready to go, it could get very intense.

Aircraft maintenance under any circumstances can be a dangerous business, but with radar and engines lit, and a crew anxious to go, it often got downright scary. My worst nightmare was always an APN-59 radar system failure on a KC-135. Sometimes we got lucky and it was either a navigator or copilot display, but it was usually the antenna or receiver/transmitter. To replace the antenna one had to first roll a scaffold to the front of the aircraft and remove the fiberglass radome. That was a fairly routine drill that, in and of itself, was fairly straightforward. The problem was that, with a new second lieutenant navigator, it was not a question of if but rather when they would decide to fire up the radar or set the antenna rotating – with people working on it. I was convinced that I was sterile from the microwave consequences of these breaches of red tag etiquette until Real Wife got pregnant 16 years after the last exposure. Replacing the receiver transmitter was also a joy. It weighed, as I recall, between 80 – 90 lbs. Nobody did it by the book – that took too much time. The real procedure was to straddle the hatch in front of the nose gear and muscle it in and out of its nest. In the day I weighed all of 150 lbs – it was not an easy feat.

The other one I loved during launch was what I recall to be a transponder system of some sort (Joe Comer, help me out – the R/T in both the BUF and KC-135 sat in the tail right next to the stabilizer trim screw, with the antennae in the vertical stabilizer). This was another nearly 100 lb. marvel of vacuum tube electronics technology. It was fairly accessible in the BUF, being just aft of the rear belly hatch. In the tanker, however, one had to climb through a very small hatch into a VERY claustrophobic area just aft of the fuel tanks. The danger in either case was a crewmember checking the stabilizer trim while you were in there (again, not a matter of if but rather when). The stabilizer trim screw, which was several inches in diameter, would move very quickly when activated and could easily impale or otherwise disfigure the unwary technician. Yes we had trim locks with red tags, but aircrew officers seemed to truly believe that they were more of a suggestion than a prohibition.

Being good at dealing with redball situations led to being assigned to more frequent launch duty, probably not unlike taking point in the Army. I do believe that it built self confidence and the ability to quickly assess and act like no other experience I have had before or since.


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