Mechanics at Kirkuk conjure up vehicles
KIRKUK, Iraq — The Air Force mechanics call her Franken Truck.
She’s built with Iraqi refueler guts, a Russian flatbed welded to her back, the brakes off a Mercedes sweeper and a push-button starter switch pilfered from a Russian generator.
“And don’t forget the American sweat,” said Tech. Sgt. John Temple, vehicle maintenance supervisor at the gritty garage where dead Iraqi vehicles are reborn.
Since arriving in mid-April, the eight mechanics at the 506th Logistics Readiness Squadron have resurrected nine junked or looted vehicles at the Kirkuk airfield, along with assorted generators, air pumps and sirens.
They didn’t have a choice. Air Force vehicles are few and far between in the region. There were none at Kirkuk when the mechanics got there.
“Our deputy commander told us that if we wanted a vehicle, we’d have to make one,” said Staff Sgt. John Natcher, who wears his boony hat brim curled up like a bushwhacker and spits tobacco juice between sentences.
It’s true, said Lt. Col. Tracey Walker, second-in-charge of the 506th Air Expeditionary Group. “I told them only their imagination was the limit.”
Natcher and Staff Sgt. Brandon Parangao were the first two mechanics to arrive at Kirkuk from Bashur airfield. They brought only what they could carry in two tool bags and eight parts bags. The rest of the crew trickled in over the next few days with little more than their Leatherman tools and Gerber knives.
They set up shop in an abandoned garage with no electricity and piles of discarded vehicle parts.
But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, Staff Sgt. Richard Daniel said. And the airfield at Kirkuk was a gold mine. The vast base, stretching 16 square kilometers, was littered with abandoned Iraqi trucks, armored vehicles and parts.
“This place is a scavenger’s paradise,” said Natcher, 34, of Garland, Texas. The team is only trained to work on American vehicles, but they’ve adapted to working on the mostly Russian-made trucks.
“You just have to remember everything you ever saw MacGyver do,” Natcher said.
The shop’s first project was to get a running-around car so they could scavenge the base. They found an old taxicab that had been shot up in an ambush.
“It was riddled with bullet holes and had a roof rack,” Natcher said. “We rewired some stuff and got it running. It kept stalling because there were bullet holes in the radiator.”
Since then, they’ve fixed a bulldozer, a runway sweeper, a steam roller and Franken Truck — used to haul ordnance for disposal because the Air Force didn’t want to risk one of its own.
“She runs like a champ,” said explosive ordnance disposal team member Master Sgt. Joe Bean, 38, of Sacramento, Calif. “It’s mission failure without it.”
The mechanics’ pet projects get names and special paint jobs. There’s Medusa, a huge truck with snakelike green camouflage paint left over from Iraqi military days. And there’s Godzilla, named “because it just looks mean,” Parangao, 25, of Kauai, Hawaii, said.
Sometimes, Natcher said, the mechanics searched through tall weeds around junked trucks to find the parts they needed. The rest came from sheer ingenuity.
On one Iraqi grader, they plugged a busted fuel line with a stick and some tape to keep the air out. They made door handles out of scavenged wire and plugged tires with wood pegs and silicone glue. They’ve rigged a battery charger in the back of an Iraqi fire truck. They’re using the truck’s water-pressure machine to pump up tires.
“We’re making miracles happen here,” Daniel, 34, of Atlanta, said.
When long days stretched into dark night, they used their flashlights to see. Sometimes, they used a mirror to reflect a car’s high-beam lights under vehicle hoods, said Temple, 32, of Richland, Mo.
Natcher is quick to point out that none of their methods can be found in any Air Force manual. But no matter — the manuals haven’t gotten here, either.
The mechanics, themselves an amalgam of United States active and Reserve units, don’t know what they’ll do if they ever get any proper tools and equipment.
“I think that’ll mean it’s time to go home,” Natcher said.