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Dryden's 'Rat Pack'
Sept. 2004
 
Joe Niquette works in the engine compartment of an ER-2. They're affectionately (if unofficially) known as the hangar rats. They've been fixtures on the Dryden landscape for decades. And their mandate is simple, but far from easy: keep the planes running - safely.

Image Right: Joe Niquette works in the engine compartment of an ER-2. NASA Photo by Tom Tschida

F-15s, F-16s and F/A-18s, manned and unmanned experimental aircraft, research testbeds and a wide assortment of other flying machines winged, instrumented and otherwise - these are the planes that made Dryden famous. The hangar rats are the guys who make sure the pilots who fly those planes take to the skies safely. Every time. So those same pilots can also, in turn, bring the plane back down to the runway safely, and live to do it all over again.

And nobody appreciates that work quite like the people with their hand on the stick.

"They've sure saved my life. Oh yes. Many times," said retired research pilot Bill Dana.

"The ground support technicians are the backbone of Dryden flight operations. They receive the aircraft when it comes to Dryden. They put it in condition to fly. Then, when flight day comes, they assist the pilot from the time he arrives at the airplane until he taxis for takeoff. Then they meet the aircraft when it parks, and the whole cycle begins again."

Ken Wilson, right, and Pat Lloyd inspect the NB-52B's tires to make sure the aircraft will be ready to roll when it's time for a mission. Image Right: Ken Wilson, right, and Pat Lloyd inspect the NB-52B's tires to make sure the aircraft will be ready to roll when it's time for a mission. NASA Photo by Tom Tschida

The technicians who staff Dryden hangars share some elements of a common background. Most have military training and work experience, and all have Airframe and Powerplant, or A&P, licenses earned through certified training programs. Many are auto or motorcycle enthusiasts outside of work. To a man, virtually all profess to really love airplanes.

But while the education and experiences they bring with them to Dryden are important, they also learn the care and feeding of their charges through long hours of on-the-job training.

"You get to know the airplanes over time, sure," said De Garcia, one of 13 DynCorp employees responsible for maintaining Dryden's fleet of support aircraft used primarily for chase and photography/video support. Garcia has been a Dryden hangar technician for seven years.

"You come to the job with what you know, and then you just keep adding to it." A day in the life of a hangar tech may mean kicking tires, checking hydraulic lines, testing cockpit avionics and instrument displays, cleaning landing gear, going over life-support equipment or eyeballing control surfaces for signs of de-lamination, among other things. Like cars, aircraft require scheduled maintenance and phase inspections, some cyclical and some timed with the number of operational miles or types of use. The techs' daily routine involves prepping a plane for flight and then giving it another going-over when it's back on the ground. Most days, they run through the whole routine at least a couple times. There's often another aspect of the work, too, which they all seem to take in stride.

Kevin Mount works in the cockpit of an F/A-18. Image Right: Kevin Mount works in the cockpit of an F/A-18. NASA Photo by Tom Tschida

Sometimes, "we're professional 'waiters,'" said Dale Hogg, a nine-year veteran of the hangars. "We wait on parts, we wait on fuel, we wait on pilots. It's just part of the job."

Those stretches offer a chance to keep the reference library of maintenance manuals up to date. Most Dryden hangars - there are five - have shelves full of manufacturer spec sheets, scheduled maintenance records and tech bulletins specific to the different types of aircraft, and technicians keep the barrage of paperwork in order.

Safety directives also are cataloged. No one underestimates the critical importance of the procedures these directives spell out.

"The safety issues - a lot of those are written in blood. Literally," said avionics tech Delman Ellis. "You don't forget the kind of lessons that somebody had to learn the hard way."

Specialties exist among the technicians, with some, like Ellis and Dan Batchko, dedicated to the aircrafts' computer and electrical functions - avionics. Others, like Garcia, are responsible for a process known as Non-Destructive Inspection, or NDI. Using such tools as black light and dye, NDI inspections call for aircraft parts to be disassembled and tested to detect cracks or other evidence of wear.

Paul Tremlin and Kevin Mount work carefully to tow an F/A-18. Image Right: Paul Tremlin and Kevin Mount work carefully to tow an F/A-18. NASA Photo by Tom Tschida

But specialties aside, all are qualified to do general maintenance. Which means all generally share the job's aggravations and rewards. The worst thing about their work?

"Weather," said Garcia. "When it's cold and windy, it's bad. When it's hot and windy, it's bad. Weather is the one thing that I don't always like about the job."

Eighteen-year veteran Paul Tremlin III, an F-18 crew chief, echoed Garcia's sentiments.

"Nobody likes having to do things like scoop sand out of intakes," he said. But if lakebed weather conditions are at one end of the job satisfaction scale, at the other is the sense of accomplishment inherent in seeing Dryden missions go off well thanks to their efforts.

"When you tear down a plane for a phase inspection, then rebuild it, and then the pilot flies it, you know you've done your job well," said Tremlin. "It's a real sense of accomplishment," echoed Ellis. "You get to see the results of what you do, right then and there."

Tim Logan assists with the takeoff of King Air 801. Image Right: Tim Logan assists with the takeoff of King Air 801. NASA Photo by Tom Tschida

Throughout Dryden's history, the hangar techs have been a constant in the work of the Center and have played a critical role in Dryden's many accomplishments - usually, with no shortage of wisecracking esprit de corps in their ranks. Anyone familiar with the hangar work environment, for example, probably wouldn't bother asking why a petrified bat - just one in a never-ending stream of winged creatures (of the warm-blooded kind) that periodically take up residence in hangar rafters - was observed recently "roosting" atop a computer screen. But there are no jokes when it comes to the way hangar techs approach their work, and the techs have a special relationship with the pilots whose airplanes they service. A key aspect of the techs' work is responding to comments pilots routinely record on "squawk sheets" after each flight - notes taken about a plane's performance or about potential maintenance issues that need investigating.

Though most techs are not pilots themselves, "you kind of have to be able to talk to a pilot in a particular way, to quiz him, and really understand a lot about actually flying the plane," said Ellis.

The relationship between pilot and ground crew is a critical one. "They put a lot of trust in us," said Tremlin. "It helps that so many of us have been here for so long."

While techs of bygone eras serviced rocket planes, UAVs are emerging as the type of aircraft likely to populate Dryden hangars of today and in the future. Today's technicians are sanguine about the latest species of bird appearing in the test bays.

"Somebody's still going to have to take care of them," said Garcia. "UAVs have tires and hydraulics and engines, just like all the rest of the planes we've worked on."

Paul Everhart, at left, and Walt Chase work on F-15 No. 837. Image Right: Paul Everhart, at left, and Walt Chase work on F-15 No. 837. NASA Photo by Tom Tschida

What they won't have is canopies, ejection seats and life-support gear for the techs to oversee - nor "any knuckleheads in the cockpit," noted technician Kevin Mount, with a glint of hangar-rat humor.

With live cargo or without, though, hangar techs will still have the final word on the health of the aircraft and will continue playing the all-important role they always have in the success and safety of Dryden missions.

"The ground support technicians are the final custodians of the airplane," said Dana. "They're the ones who have the final say on when the airplane is safe to fly."

"Dryden's flight safety record is testimony to the skill and diligence of our ground support technicians."

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Sarah Merlin
X-Press Assistant Editor