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.