Maintaining aircraft for atmospheric river missions

  • Published
  • By Jessica L. Kendziorek
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

When it comes to maintaining the aircraft, it doesn’t matter if the 403rd Maintenance Group is at home or at an off-station location, they get the job done.

“We have four of our WC-130J aircraft at Mather Air Field flying Atmospheric River missions right now,” said Senior Master Sgt. Myra Trippe, 403rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron assistant superintendent. “Keeping them in working order to fly the missions no matter the challenges we face is what we do.”

The weather data collected during Atmospheric River missions flown by the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron is used to improve forecast models for the West Coast. This data helps build a vertical profile of the water vapor in the low-level jet stream, which also provides the critical knowledge needed to improve reservoir operations that can supply water during droughts and assist with the control of water levels during potential flood events.

To keep the 53rd WRS aircraft flying at an off-station location, the maintenance personnel bring the equipment needed to operate and work on the aircraft to keep the aircraft operational with them, but some locations present challenges.

One challenge is where to get the liquid oxygen carts filled. 

“We are having the LOX carts transported back and forth from Keesler during the crew rotations,” said Trippe. “Or we either have to generate a flight to fly the cart over to a local base, get it filled, and bring it back.”

While this could be an option, the first two weeks of January were extremely busy for both aircrew and maintenance with no time between flights. Many of the aircrew members and some of the maintainers are on a 16-day rotation, while some of the maintainers are on a 30-day rotation.

“The first rotation lasted 16 days, and we flew 15 of the 16 days with one mission cancelled for weather," said Maj. Grant Wagner, 53rd WRS navigator and AR mission commander. “We launched 22 sorties during the first rotation, and we did not lose a single sortie due to maintenance."

Wagner said that the maintainers worked a grueling schedule during his time out there. Going for 16 days straight with no breaks on both day and night shift.

“We don’t really want to work the maintainers that many days straight with no relief like that again, especially with the constant maintenance in the cold weather and rain,” said Wagner.

That was another challenge that maintenance is facing: the weather.

“The time frame I was there the weather was a challenge, but that is what we train for,” said Master Sgt. Christopher Simmons, 403rd AMXS crew chief. “We have to be able to perform our job and our duties in any environment no matter what the weather is like.”

While for the aircrew, the cold, rainy weather prevented a take-off, it presents a different challenge for the maintainers.

“Most of our duties are outside, and while the duties and working in the weather are the same from season to season the conditions may differ,” said Simmons. “Due to the cold, rainy weather we were working in, we had to worry about keeping our tools dry and keeping an eye on our work-to-rest ratio in relation to warming back up and staying dry ourselves.” 

Another aspect of the weather is the high winds, because without tie-downs for the aircraft, the winds during this atmospheric river mission caused the front wheels to turn at times. Also having no tug and tow bar the maintenance personnel could not manually straighten the wheels, so they have to wait until the aircraft is ready to taxi.

“The high winds added additional work on top of regular maintenance,” said Trippe. “We had to include high wind inspections to our standard maintenance checks before releasing the aircraft for flight.”

Wagner said that due to the dynamic nature of the mission, there is always something to catch them off guard, such as having to de-ice the aircraft two years ago in Reno and a shortened runway.

“This is the first time we have flown AR missions where we were actually inside the AR weather on the ground,” said Wagner. “But when it comes down to it, the maintainers did an excellent job, they were asked to do more than they could imagine, and they did it to 100% effectiveness.”