Contractors maintain T-38s to sustain operations
By Staff Sgt. Nick Wilson, 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
/ Published February 01, 2013
WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. --
Millions of dollars, just for every flight hour. That is how much it would cost the Air Force for B-2 Spirit pilots to fly training sorties with B-2s. Fortunately, B-2 pilots are able to complete training missions flying another vital Air Force asset - the T-38 Talon.
"The T-38 is a cost-effective way to ensure pilots are current on flying hours so they can keep flying the B-2," said Dale Gerdens, M-1 Support Services aircraft mechanic. "It's less expensive because you can fly all week in T-38s, performing 18 sorties a day for two weeks for what it costs to fly the B-2."
To sustain T-38 flight operations, a team of 18 experienced mechanics are contracted to work around the clock to ensure 100% operational readiness.
Because the T-38 has been used by the Air Force since the early 1960s, it takes a lot of attention to detail to keep the aircraft from falling apart, said Gerdens.
"Being as old as they are, if you don't maintain them and check them out every day, you can experience problems," Gerdens said.
The contractors are assisted by the maintenance back-shops, including structures and egress, in handling issues beyond their realm of expertise. Most of the maintainers are prior-service Air Force mechanics who have decades of experience working with T-38s.
"We have 10 T-38 technicians, and we also have mechanics who are responsible for flight instruments, communications and navigation, among other aircraft components," said Tommy Royer, M-1 Support Services aircraft mechanic.
To work on the T-38s, mechanics must have experience in numerous mechanical areas, including changing tires, repairing hydraulic lines and leaks, changing different instruments in the cockpit, and replacing different components on the aircraft. Many of the contractors are older than the T-38s, and therefore possess the necessary knowledge and experience to work on the half-century-old airframes.
"The problem with the T-38s is that there aren't a lot of them out there," Gerdens said. "There are very few people who have ever worked on a T-38 because [it's] such an old aircraft."
As mechanics perform the daily maintenance on the T-38s, safety is the main objective. They ensure B-2 pilots have a safe aircraft to train with so they are ready to respond to a global threat at a moment's notice.
"We have to keep a certain number of T-38s fully mission-capable every day so B-2 pilots can meet daily requirements," Royer said.
Keeping the T-38s mission-ready requires the team of maintainers to work two shifts totaling up to 16 hours a day. The team keeps at least nine people on duty throughout each shift, in order to handle the numerous inspections and maintenance tasks that must be performed.
"We make sure six aircraft can fly three times a day," Royer said. "We also have a lot of preparing for pre-flight and post-flight maintenance, so we need everyone we have."
The maintenance process could take anywhere from a few hours to several days, depending on the type of maintenance needed and parts that are available, said Royer.
"We have work cards and technical orders that give us instructions for each task we must perform," he said.
The work cards the contractors have can range anywhere from 75 to 200 tasks.
Compared to the millions of dollars it costs to maintain the B-2 for every flight hour, upkeep for the T-38 costs $700 to $800 for each hour the jet is in the air.
"Since the T-38 is cheaper to maintain, it's been used by the Air Force for many years as a training aircraft," Gerdens said. "It's reliable because it does everything pilots need to stay proficient in their training. It's also a fairly easy jet to maintain."
Overall, it takes an experienced and dedicated group of maintenance professionals to keep the T-38s maintained. Without the T-38s, it would be difficult for B-2 pilots to stay current with flight hours and complete the training they need in order to be ready to respond to war-time emergencies, said Royer.
"Knowing we can keep these planes flying for the government is very rewarding," Gerdens said. "Safety of the aircrew and the individuals around the aircraft is instrumental to what we do here."