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Fuels Airmen keep more than planes operational

by Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips
407th Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs

8/4/2005 - ALI BASE, Iraq (AFPN) -- For 19 years now, Master Sgt. David Chandler’s mother proudly tells everyone she meets that her son “passes gas for a living” in the U.S. Air Force.

The fuels manager with the 407th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron fuels management flight here is not fazed. He is heard them all and is ready to dish out a few jokes himself on a moment’s notice.

However, the petroleum, oil and lubricants specialist also knows his job is serious business.

“We provide fuel to keep it rolling -- whether it’s vehicles, aircraft, (generators to provide) power or light carts,” said Sergeant Chandler, who is from McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. And unlike having to drive to the corner gas station for a tank of gas, Sergeant Chandler and crew deliver direct to the customer.

“Our mobility and flexibility are our greatest assets,” Sergeant Chandler said. “If you can land it here or tell us where the equipment is at, we go to you.”

Since May, the fuels Airmen have distributed 3.3 million gallons of liquid energy to the Air Force, their sister services and coalition customers.

It is not as simple as it seems. The fuels specialists do not just hook up a fuel line to the receptacle and mindlessly pump away. There is a science to ensuring there is a proper blend of fuel.

And the proper blend of fuel is a tad bit more of a concern to customers who maneuver at more than 20,000 above the ground.

Dedicated to perfectionism, the fuels Airmen check their product to ensure the conductivity is high enough, the fuel will ignite at a certain flash point and water content.

“If condensation forms in a (C-5 Galaxy) fuel tank that holds 20,000 gallons and it clogs up the fuel line, then you have 100 dead servicemembers on your hands. It’s a big deal,” said Tech. Sgt. Roy Townsend, 407th ELRS fuels information service center superintendent who is deployed from McConnell.

“Attention to detail is critical in my career field,” Sergeant Townsend said.

That is where Staff Sgt. Jason Bello, noncommissioned officer in charge of the 407th ELRS fuels lab, steps in. He filters gasoline that is not up to par before it ever gets to the customer. If a batch turns up with the levels out of balance, he blends it with approved fuel until he creates a safe mixture suitable for his customers.

While some Airmen here may spend much of their day behind computers, the more than 15 fuels specialists have a front window seat to see a parade of the world’s most interesting aircraft.

“I always like (that in POL I can do) different things and interact with (many different cultures and people who fly) on foreign aircraft,” Sergeant Bello said.

They recently refueled Belgian aircraft, Marine Corps CH-53 and CH-46 helicopters, along with their standard routine of supporting C-130 Hercules, Italian helos and Army aircraft here.

“We recently got to ‘hot refuel’ 40 Marine helicopters and go ‘under the blades,’” said Sergeant Chandler, who until then was the only one in his crew to hot refuel a helicopter. Hot refueling is the fueling of aircraft while their engines are still running.

Most of the time, fuels Airmen refuel aircraft while the propellers are off, but with a hot refuel, the blades are turning, and any mistake can turn deadly.

“The Marines loved the support,” Sergeant Chandler said. “They had a limited amount of ground time scheduled, and we jumped in and got them gassed and on their way.”

For fuels Airmen, fuel is a critical component to mission success, similar to a rocket or a gun. Without fuel, the warfighter cannot engage and win the fight.

“When Marine helos or fighters divert here, my folks are dying to be the one to go out and give them gas,” Sergeant Chandler said. “We may not be refueling the fighters that drop the bombs on a daily basis, but we are assisting that fighter -- and that’s what matters.”

Even though they drive a huge fuel truck, the Airmen quickly fade into the background of the hustle and bustle of the flightline once their job is complete.

However, Airman Stewart said what most people do not know is the services they provide do not just affect flightline operations.

“If there is a generator on base, there is a good bet that I’ve been there,” said Airman 1st Class Sarah Stewart, a 407th ELRS fuels operator who is also deployed from McConnell.

Without their products, the entire base, which is powered by generators that run off fuel, would come to a screeching halt.

“When you get on the plane to go home, you’re welcome. When you power up your computers, you’re welcome. When you call home or enjoy the air conditioning, you’re welcome … because without POL you’re out of luck,” Airman Stewart said.

Most of the time, the fuels specialists cannot take advantage of the cool air they help create, because they are in the heat driving the fuel to more than 40 daily stops.

It is a big job, but the fuels specialists here make sure they do not lose their sense of humor.

“Have you heard what POL stands for?” Sergeant Chandler asked.

With a smile, he responds, “Painting, odd jobs and landscaping.”

Even while they are joking, the Airmen are working hard to improve services for their customers. In this rotation, they have decreased receipt time by 30 percent and increased issue time by 150 percent by removing unnecessary hoses and valves. They also added another pumping station so more than one vehicle can receive fuel simultaneously.

“Every twist the fuel goes through slows it down,” Sergeant Chandler said.

And in a hostile environment, every moment can make the difference between winning or losing an engagement. It is a reality the fuels specialists always have in the back of their mind.

“I’m proud of what I do,” Airman Stewart said. “When I see a plane take off, no matter how many times or what kind of mood I’m in, I have to smile knowing that (we refueled it so they can complete their mission).”

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