Taking Flight: C-130H undergoes final flight tests to ensure airworthiness

  • Published
  • By Jenny Gordon
  • Robins Public Affairs

Editor's Note: This is the final article tracking programmed depot maintenance on a C-130 in the Home Away from Home series

Our baby's all grown up and ready to fly home. The one that's nearly 80,000 pounds, that is. 

Don't worry, because when it's finally ready to depart the Robins flight line for its trip across the globe, every hand that's touched it here will have certified it safe and ready to be used by the warfighter.            

Can you count the number of times on a C-130 that you've physically removed fuel, de-painted, disassembled, inspected, repaired and assembled, painted, checked to ensure everything is working properly, then test flew it at 17,000 feet?

If you can count even one time, that's extraordinary. 

But get this, that's exactly what happens at the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex. 

And moreover, Robins employees don't just do it for the C-130, but also C-5, C-17 and F-15 aircraft. Every single day.

Getting it done
When the C-130H we've been following in our Home Away from Home series arrived last August, before its wheels even touched down on the flight line, workers were prepared to perform programmed depot maintenance on it. 

That's what Robins does - remove old paint, strip parts away, fix those parts, and then systematically put it all back together again. 

Robins gets it done through a series of seven gates: induction and disassembly for de-paint; de-paint/wash; disassembly for docks; inspection; repair and build-up; paint; and functional test.

Each gate plays a role in the production machine. Each has its own set of requirements and work packages, personnel and experience, budgets, dedicated workspace and history. 

Yet the mission remains the same. No matter where you work in the complex, the way business is conducted has been intentionally standardized in the 560th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, and squadrons across the 402nd Aircraft Maintenance Group, supporting backshops from the 402nd Commodities Maintenance Group, and many others. 

It's been agreed that when you give mechanics a job, give them the tools they need beforehand and when they need it, in order to make production happen. 

Using scientific production principles outlined in what's known as "The AFSC Way," the emphasis is now placed on process discipline and accountability. Aircraft workload is now focused, methodical and synchronized throughout the production cycle.

Back to our C-130, as we move further into the cycle, each day brings it closer to completion, and returned safely to the customer. 

The 1974 model aircraft in our series had travelled thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean and continental U.S., touching down at Robins, its temporary home for several months.

The aircraft has visited countless shops. She held her own in the open, waiting to be towed to a nearby shelter where parts were removed such as its flight controls and wheel well doors.

In Bldg. 54, de-paint procedures took place, where Corrosion Flight members used a chemical paint stripper to remove primer and paint. Removing the old former paint ensures that later in the PDM process, mechanics can inspect its surface for cracks, corrosion and other potential damage.  

After de-paint, further disassembly involved removal of its cargo door, outboard and inboard flaps, and horizontal and vertical tails to ready it for inspections.

Once completed, parts routed to backshops for repair, it was time to put everything back together in Gate 5's repair and build-up phase. 

It's a busy place on any given day inside Bldg. 91. Ailerons, rudders, leading edges and elevators are just a few of the parts being dealt with; fuel tanks are worked, and skins as needed are put on. The aircraft is in a much improved state than when it first arrived, and that's just on the inside.

When the aircraft is delivered to its customer, there's consensus that one of the first things its crew will notice is its appearance, or paint job. 

Joey Wrye, 402nd Maintenance Support Squadron's Corrosion Flight acting team lead, said a plane's paint job begins when it was de-painted.

One might think applying the paint itself is key, but the most important process is first washing the aircraft.

"When we wash it, clean it and add PreKote, that's the most important part because the paint won't stick if the metal isn't clean," said Wrye. 

It took five full days from start to finish, masking, sanding, sealing, washing, priming and then painting. It takes about 24 gallons of primer and roughly 60 gallons of topcoat to finish a plane.

What makes a good paint job?
"No primer showing, the sealant is good and the paint is aerodynamically flush," he said. "We want to put a great paint job on it to satisfy our customer. We take a lot of pride in that." 

After a few other visits, including one to the weight and balance shop to ensure its center of gravity is level, PDM has one final step - to get the aircraft off the ground and check its systems.

Lives on the line
When it's all said and done, when you look up in the sky and see one of the many variants of the C-130, more than likely some part of its interior has been stripped, repaired and re-installed right here at Robins Air Force Base. 

A flying fortress of raw steel, aluminum, titanium, whatever it may be, remember this - everything flying up there was collectively pieced by human hands.

The final gate, functional test, is where operational ground checks are performed on an aircraft, prior to being handed over to test pilots for flight.

"These are the final steps we take before it flies, getting it ready to be airworthy," said John Ennis,    C-130 functional test production supervisor. 

The process involves looking over the plane, performing engine runs, checking bleed air systems, flight controls, radio checks and pre-flight inspections.

Once it's ready to be flown for the first time, a crew of C-130 test pilots, flight engineers, navigators and loadmasters from the 339th Flight Test Squadron at Robins take over.

The C-130 squadron here is a unique one, with test pilots on site qualified to fly 24 different C-130 models. There are five pilots, five engineers and a loadmaster who round out the crew, along with support staff. 

Maj. Dave Kemp, test pilot, and Master Sgt. Bill Tinney, a flight engineer, agree that the squadron's mindset is especially attentive to younger crew members who are handed off the aircraft. Their job in functional test is to ensure others don't encounter something that could've been prevented on their shift.

"We're taking an aircraft, and certifying it as an airworthy one to go back into the fleet for operational use," said Kemp. "We check to make sure we're providing that new crew with a quality asset that will work correctly the first time."

"Our sole purpose in life is to make sure it's ready to go back to the warfighter," said Tinney, a squadron member since 2010. "We may not have as many issues with a newer airplane versus an older one, but when it leaves here, it's right."

A full check flight lasts close to two hours. Crews ensure they get the maximum performance out of the aircraft while in the air. 

"There's nothing on the airplane that we don't have our hands or eyes on," said Tinney. "We don't stop flying until everything is right."

Crews know they're selflessly trusting every person who has touched the plane before them.  

"When we step inside this plane, we're literally putting our lives in everybody else's    hands," said Tinney.