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FEAR AND LOAFING: Bombing Out
 

Time on the flight line drums up more excitement than our reporter imagined

 

 

Click on the photos to enlarge them...


Photos by Craig L. Moran.


 





The A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft is an army with two wings and a seat. It sports a 30-millimeter Gatling gun, whose bullets are designed to pierce tank armor, and more bombs than Emo Philips' mid-'80s stand-up act.

Today, it's my job to inspect every one of them, as well as check the plane for cracks, loose rivets and missing screws.

I'm not in some aviation museum. I'm in a restricted area of Nellis Air Force Base. Clearance has somehow been granted for me to try out Senior Airman Christina O'Gara's job for the day. She's the crew chief for an aircraft maintenance unit.

The Air Force must be crazy.

"Don't walk under any munitions," O'Gara explains. "They can fall off at any time -- if there are cracks.

"And don't stand in front of the rockets or guns," she adds.

They can shoot without being fired, in case of faulty grounding or wiring.

"It's very rare, but it has happened before," O'Gara says.

It should be noted that the planes here all face a man-made dirt mountain, called a revetment, that's designed to absorb errant gun or rocket fire before any nearby homes do.

Only last night, a live, 500-pound bomb was dropped while being loaded from the trailer. Luckily, it didn't explode.

"It was going on crooked and they couldn't stop it from falling," O'Gara says. "Someone got hurt, but nobody died." (Nellis officials say that no one was hurt.)

O'Gara, 23, says she joined the Air Force in April 2006 because she found herself trapped in a bad job (selling furniture) and a worse marriage.

"I didn't join for noble reasons," the Rogue River, Ore., native said earlier. "I got divorced, and I wanted to get as far away from him as I could."

She was hoping for Korea far, but settled on Vegas far.

"But that's not why I'm still in," she added. "I'm in because I like it."

O'Gara said being a crew chief is fun.

"It's exciting when there's a problem with a jet and you have to fix it in two minutes before they have to take off," she said. "Yesterday, the generator wouldn't come online so we had to open the whole engine, during the launch while the engine was still running."

The first tire O'Gara ever changed, by the way, was on an aircraft.

"I knew nothing about mechanics," she said. That was before six months of tech school.

Speaking about knowing nothing, I get to marshal this jet out to the runway after our inspection. (Earlier, O'Gara taught me the hand signals.) The pilot will then fly off to militarized zones of the desert, where he'll hone his aim by firing at ground targets.

But first thing's first. I start by climbing a ladder to wash the cockpit windscreen.

"The pilot's life is basically in our hands," O'Gara says. "If we didn't check a loose screw, it could go down the intake, the engine can go out and he can possibly crash.

"So every little detail is a big deal."

For such an important and perilous job, the paycheck seems woefully inadequate.

"I made $15,000 last year," says O'Gara, who works about 50 hours a week.

O'Gara says she considered training to be a pilot until a few months ago. (The pay is better.) Then she received an incentive ride in an F-16 pushing 7.5 G-forces, the units that measure the stress on the body during rapid acceleration.

"I blacked out completely," O'Gara recalls. "That was hellacious. It hurt so bad.

"And the pilot's talking to me like it's nothing."

Now, O'Gara says, her sights are trained on nursing, a career that also pays better but has fewer associated G-forces. (Her tuition will be subsidized by the Airman Education and Commissioning Program.)

"Sir, can you come down, please?" asks an Air Force official I have not seen before, and who does not identify himself when asked.

The man speaks a language only mildly resembling English into his headset as I climb down from the cockpit. Almost immediately, a blue van screeches up. It's marked "Weapons Safety."

The vehicle is exited by another unfamiliar official who demands my attention. (At this point, asking for names doesn't feel like it's in the best interest of my future.) This man insists that I enter his van -- along with Review-Journal photographer Craig L. Moran, R-J videographer Michael Quine and the Air Force public information officer who approved this assignment.

Uh-oh.

The van zooms us out of the restricted area and back to an office building, where a dispute ensues about who authorized our presence. The public information officer mentions a name and a rank that sounds authoritative to me. But Senior Master Sgt. Gordon Drake is not equally impressed.

"We don't allow civilians in a live ordnance loading area," he says, as I try to fix an image of my wife in my head for me to focus on during my 20 years at Gitmo.

"The whole idea of us being over here is that it's away from the base," Drake continues. "So if, God forbid, we had an accident, we'd kill less people over here."

Stepping on a live ejection seat was probably what got me noticed. (I wasn't tall enough to reach the bottom of the dirty windscreen.) This was ridiculously reckless, I later learn. On Dec. 7, 1993, Staff Sgt. Roland Adams was killed by an accidentally fired ejection seat while the Nellis crew chief worked on an F-4G Wild Weasel aircraft.

Ultimately, to my surprise, we are not waterboarded. In fact, I'm even allowed to complete the tasks I started.

"But you'll have to do it at Strike AMU," Drake says.

This is the simulated training part of the base, where student pilots learn to fly planes equipped with fake bombs. Fittingly, my career as a pretend Air Force crewman will end by prepping and marshaling a pretend fighter jet.

My new plane, an F-15, has already been prepped by the time we arrive. Marshaling is the only duty left. So I step out to the tarmac and try remembering my first signal: chocks out. (Chocks are the wedges that prevent the plane from rolling away -- and over the crew chief -- when it's parked.)

I don't know if you've ever had your sweet freedom flash before your eyes like I did 30 minutes ago, but the experience tends to make anything you recently bothered to memorize jet out of your head.

I fill in the gaps in my memory with the letters formed by the Beatles on the cover of the "Help!" album.

But I notice something strange. The pilot, Maj. Michael Love, isn't watching me at all. He's staring into the distance.

All that fuss and the pilots don't even watch their crew chiefs?

When I check behind me, I discover what Love is busy staring at: Staff Sgt. Duran Schleuter, the crew chief who's really marshaling him out to the runway.

The Air Force isn't as crazy as I thought.

Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.

 
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