Elbow grease, suds and long hours to keep C-130s clean at Ramstein
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 5, 2016
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Keeping the C-130 transport plane ready to fly at a moment’s notice to far-flung locations sometimes requires getting drenched on the job.
Just ask the crews from the 86th Maintenance Squadron’s isochronal inspection section. The maintainers are responsible for keeping the airframes clean and free of dirt-causing corrosion.
On Friday, wearing waterproof suits the color of doctors’ scrubs, more than a dozen airmen moved in on a C-130 with fire hoses, pressure washers, sponges, mops, buckets and suds of strong, smelly soap.
The maintainers also wore rubber boots, gloves, eye goggles and face shields to keep the soap out.
“This is ‘take-off-everything-but-the-paint’ type of soap,” said Staff Sgt. Derrick Krafft, a squadron crew chief.
The maintainers started early in the morning, covering delicate, expensive parts like sensors with tape, before spraying the plane down and then washing the entire exterior — wings, underbelly, wheel wells, landing gear, tail, rivets and all.
The job can take 10 hours or more, depending on how grimy the plane is.
“This plane wasn’t too dirty,” said Airman 1st Class Edward Erwin, an 86th Maintenance Squadron crew chief, as he sat awash in bubbles while scrubbing the lower aft section of the nose landing gear. “Some planes coming from Africa are caked in dirt everywhere.”
Erwin estimates he’s helped clean about two dozen planes in less than two years with the squadron.
“It’s the least favorite job of mine,” he said. “You’re wet, sometimes cold. You have to take a break from the fumes of the soap.”
The airmen go through anywhere from 40 to 70 sponges to clean a plane, attaching some with Velcro to broom handles to reach high places while standing atop movable lifts. The sponges get the job done but crumble in the process. White, with a smooth surface, they quickly began accumulating in blackened pieces on the concrete floor of the hangar, breaking apart while airmen used them to scrub rivets and screws.
This particular plane was getting washed for a routine inspection. The aircraft typically get cleaned about every 180 days, but that schedule can be shortened, depending on how often the aircraft flies, maintainers said.
The cleaning extends the longevity of the plane, Krafft said. “Dirt could ruin a lot of parts. We need to take off old grease and put on new grease, keep all the parts working.”
Dirt can also hide problems, Erwin said. “If there’s a crack and dirt’s covering it, there’s no way to be able to see it. We clean every rivet.”
Some C-130s are in dire need of a bath.
“The last one we did, the wing was totally black,” said Senior Airman Trevor Garner.
It was the left wing, which is “always dirtier,” Erwin said, because of the black exhaust that “shoots straight out of the left side of the fuselage” from an auxiliary power unit. The plane had been deployed for a while.
“It took about 10 hours just to clean that wing,” Garner said. “We went through a lot of soap and scrub brushes and sponges.”
Airman 1st Class Ryan Kuiper, 86th Maintenance Squadron, pressure washes the underside of a C-130J Super Hercules wing at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2016. While washing aircraft, airmen wear protective equipment to keep harsh cleaning agents off of their skin.
Michael B. Keller/Stars and Stripes