Finding spare parts for a 1958-vintage U.S. military jet is a little difficult in the small communities near the Moron Air Base in southern Spain.
So when the Utah Air National Guard's 151st Air Refueling Group sent four 30-year-old KC-135 tanker jets there for a two week deployment that ended Saturday, 80 mechanics and about $1 million in spare airplane parts went along.The mechanics were specialized in hydraulics, electronics and jet engine repair, and the parts inventory included spare tires and pieces of sophisticated electronics and navigation equipment worth $70,000 to $80,000 each.
Maj. Milt Burbidge said there is a pre-established pecking order for obtaining needed parts when a plane on foreign deployment has a malfunction or breakdown. Needed repair items can be cross-referenced with a computer list of supplies the unit takes along. Some parts that might have been needed during the Spain deployment could also have been scavenged from other planes, or requested from other American and NATO bases elsewhere in Europe.
One of the tankers experienced a fuel leak, but the repair was minor. Another had to land in North Dakota for repairs while returning to Salt Lake City, but there were no breakdowns and no delays to any of the flying missions scheduled during the deployment, said Senior Master Sgt. Jimmie Duncan.
The unit's eight tankers are in better repair than similar tankers operated by active-duty units in the Air Force, said Maj. Roger Gillespie. The Air Force wasn't given an opportunity to refute that claim, but Chief Master Sgt. Ronald Hartel, the Air Guard unit's chief line mechanic, said the type of planes the unit now flies makes a difference in the amount of maintenance needed.
Older C-124 piston-engine cargo planes the unit used to fly were much more temperamental and required more frequent repair. Those aircraft flew many deployments to Vietnam during the war, and a mechanic was always on board to take care of problems.
"They always made sure I was along," Hartel said. More than once the mechanic crawled through tunnels in the wings to make in-flight repairs on the 24-cylinder piston engines.
Five B-52 bombers from Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Michigan were also stationed at the Moron Air Base while the the Utah Air Guard was there. Their mechanics were quite busy with each of the aircraft needing maintenance work almost daily.
"The nice thing about B-52s is they're paid for," said pilot Maj. Sam Villagran while gazing at the inside of the bomb bay, left open while the bomber was on the ground. "But the bad thing is they need a lot of fixing. We had parts that were repaired before a flight that needed fixing again at the end of the mission."