Dangerous and dirty – MacDill “Tank Divers” power the fight

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Triston Evans, an aircraft fuel systems journeyman assigned to the 6th Maintenance Squadron, squeezes through the interworking of a KC-135 Stratotanker training fuel cell at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., May 30, 2018.

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Triston Evans, an aircraft fuel systems journeyman assigned to the 6th Maintenance Squadron, squeezes through the interworking of a KC-135 Stratotanker training fuel cell at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., May 30, 2018. After donning a respirator and other personal protective equipment, Airmen like Evans must squeeze through an access port no larger than a shoebox to inspect and repair the inside of the aircraft’s fuel cell. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Adam R. Shanks)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Adrian Gonzalez, an aircraft fuel systems craftsman with the 6th Maintenance Squadron, demonstrates how to wear a respirator at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., May 30, 2018.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Adrian Gonzalez, an aircraft fuel systems craftsman with the 6th Maintenance Squadron, demonstrates how to wear a respirator at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., May 30, 2018. Use of respirators are mandatory when working inside a KC-135 Stratotanker’s fuel cells, due to the presence of fuel vapors and lack of oxygen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Adam R. Shanks)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Adrian Gonzalez, an aircraft fuel systems craftsman assigned to the 6th Maintenance Squadron calibrates a photoionization detector used during fuel systems maintenance at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., May 30, 2018.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Adrian Gonzalez, an aircraft fuel systems craftsman assigned to the 6th Maintenance Squadron calibrates a photoionization detector used during fuel systems maintenance at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., May 30, 2018. Known as a PID, this detector measures oxygen and volatile organic compounds in any given space by parts per million. An alarm signals when air conditions inside the fuel tank is too hazardous. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Adam R. Shanks)

Fuel cell access ports under the wing of a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft are used by 6th Maintenance Squadron aircraft fuel systems Airmen at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., May 30, 2018.

Fuel cell access ports under the wing of a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft are used by 6th Maintenance Squadron aircraft fuel systems Airmen at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., May 30, 2018. The port, no larger than a shoebox, leads to the confined space where “Tank Divers” inspect the fuel cells and fuel bladders for corrosion, deterioration and foreign objects. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Adam R. Shanks.)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Bonham Macintosh, an aircraft fuel systems craftsman with the 6th Maintenance Squadron, begins preparation to pressurize a wing fuel system on a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., May 31, 2018.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Bonham Macintosh, an aircraft fuel systems craftsman with the 6th Maintenance Squadron, begins preparation to pressurize a wing fuel system on a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., May 31, 2018. One step fuel system Airmen use is to pressurize the aircraft’s fuel system to detect leaks and if found, pinpoint their exact location for repairs. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Adam R. Shanks)

A KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft sits in the 6th Maintenance Squadron aircraft fuel systems hangar during an inspection at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., May 31, 2018.

A KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft sits in the 6th Maintenance Squadron aircraft fuel systems hangar during an inspection at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., May 31, 2018. With 24 KC-135s, the fuel systems Airmen are charged with maintaining their fuel tanks, by working in the aircraft’s confined spaces. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Adam R. Shanks)

An emblem painted onto 6th Maintenance Squadron’s aircraft fuel systems hangar at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., May 30, 2018.

An emblem painted onto 6th Maintenance Squadron’s aircraft fuel systems hangar at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., May 30, 2018. The emblem depicts a cartoon representation of the Airmen, who “dive” into the KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft’s fuel systems to detect and repair leaks and deterioration. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Adam R. Shanks)

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --

Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell. All things, living and mechanical require a source of fuel and a system designed to convert that fuel into energy. Aircraft are no exception.

While cells are microscopic, their functions can be magnified to apply to a larger structure such as an aircraft, with many complex parts with unique roles combined to make an efficient force.

Think of the engine as mitochondria; powering its flight. But that engine cannot run without a source of fuel, and for that purpose there is a specialized group of Airmen who are charged with maintaining the systems that enable the KC-135 Stratotanker to use and deliver its fuel and to power our Air Force around the world.

Known as “Tank Divers,” Airmen with the 6th Maintenance Squadron aircraft fuel systems section at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, constantly find themselves in a bind, looking for and fixing deterioration and leaks in the fuel systems of the aircraft.

“The access doors we use, aren’t much larger than the size of a shoebox,” said Staff Sgt. Adrian Gonzalez, an aircraft fuel systems craftsman with the 6th MXS. “Once inside, our movement is extremely restricted; it’s full of plumbing and reeks of jet fuel.

“We have to have multiple qualifications just to get inside the fuel systems, which shows just how dangerous it can be.”

Like any fuel source, fumes are the main cause of concern and the smallest spark or electronic transmission could lead to a deadly result.

“It’s a dirty, challenging job that requires a lot of patience and caution,” said Tech. Sgt. Steve Parina, a shift supervisor of the aircraft fuel systems section. “We go through a huge list of procedures before and during our work using special equipment to detect oxygen levels and fuel in the air around us.

“The only thing smaller than the spaces we work in, is the room for error.”

Some tools are complex, such as the photoionization detector which detects the oxygen levels of the air, and will alarm the Airmen of hazardous conditions. However, another tool can be found in every home near the kitchen sink.

“One method of finding a leak in the fuel system, is to use dish soap and water,” said Gonzalez. “We’ll pressurize the fuel system with air, and spray a sudsy mixture into the compartments, and wherever the bubbles break, that tells us where the leak is.”

Gonzalez explained that most jobs on the fuel systems take an average of 12 hours to complete. But one task this team undertook led to them winning Air Mobility Command’s innovation award.

With approximately 13,000 man hours spanning six months, the 6 MXS aircraft fuel systems shop was able to completely remove a 30-year-old topcoat inside of all of MacDill’s KC-135 aircraft in 2017. Due to its age, the previous topcoat began to deteriorate and began causing issues in the engines. The team was able to pinpoint this, and create a new way of inspecting and repairing the issue, which is now being used Air Force-wide.

“In my time as a fuel systems Airman, this shop has been one of the best teams I’ve been a part of,” said Parina. “Coming from a fighter base, to a tanker base like MacDill was a change, but the men and women I work with every day do amazing work on the 24 jets we’re charged with.”

A claustrophobic and dirty job such as this would turn most away, but aircraft fuel systems Airmen do it day-in and day-out to keep fuel flowing. When compared to a cell, they are similar to the molecules inside, working to repair and detect things that could cause malfunction. Each “organelle” and structure uses its unique function to allow safe, dependable operation at all times.