No safety shortcuts to successful mission
By Lt. Col. Otis C. Jones, 726th Air Mobility Squadron
/ Published September 04, 2012
SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- A few months ago, Tech. Sgt. Eric Hobbs, an aerospace propulsion craftsman, and Staff Sgt. Mark Lipumano, an aircraft electrical and environmental systems craftsman, were dispatched to relieve night shift and complete the launch of a C-17. Poised to go stateside, the aircrew spooled the engines, blocked out and taxied to the end of the runway when Hobbs and Lipumano began their post-launch foreign object debris (FOD) walk. Conducting what they believed to be a routine check, their ever-vigilant ramp safety inspection exposed an unusual stain of fuel.
Concerned for the aircraft and its precious resources, they immediately went into action and called their expediter, Master Sgt. Christopher Belflower, to weigh in on what they had found. After a quick evaluation, Belflower determined the fuel spill of about 5 gallons was situated outboard and aft of the No. 1 engine. The group also took note of a trail of fuel that followed the path of the aircraft's taxi route. At that point, the aircraft went airborne which, in the minds of some, may have meant that it was no longer their problem. But for this team of professionals, this would not become another station's cleanup. After identifying the fuel was lost during engine start and the subsequent taxi was abnormal, Belflower coordinated with his production superintendent, Master Sgt. Nichole Wilder, and the Maintenance Operations Center to have the aircraft return for further investigation.
The Spangdahlem Fire Department met the aircraft after it landed and taxied off the active runway. There, they performed a visual inspection of the No. 1 engine and found no evidence of a fuel leak. After the inspection, the aircraft was cleared to continue taxiing to the parking ramp. Once the aircraft was stopped on its spot and her engines were shut down, fuel was discovered dripping from the left wing dump and had already accumulated about a half a gallon of fuel on the ground, directly under the dump mast.
Belflower and the fire chief combed the runway and taxi areas, only to discover a patch of fuel (more than 5 gallons) at the location the aircraft was held after landing. There was also a trail of fuel leading from the runway en route to its current parking spot. Ultimately, fuel cell technicians determined the left-side wing vent valve had not seated properly and allowed fuel to escape through the vent dump mast.
This event could have quickly escalated with a more forbidding ending but attention to detail, courage in the face of adversity and solid professionalism rang true. The aircrew was initially apprehensive about being called back to land but the dispatched experts who immediately met them on the scene informed them of the situation's severity, quickly transforming the aircrew's apprehension into gratitude.
It took courage for the lowest ranking member on the team to inform his expediter of the probability something was not functioning correctly to create a puddle of fuel that was left behind. It took a little more courage for the expediter to coordinate the aircraft's return to base.
This lesson reassures us that no mission is so important that we do not take the steps necessary to ensure it happens safely!
Tech. Sgt. Eric Hobbs is assigned to the 445th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio; Staff Sgt. Lipumano is assigned to the 51st Maintenance Squadron, Osan Air Base, Korea.