Only the best engine parts make it past testing at Lakenheath
July 23, 2008
RAF LAKENHEATH — he engine from an F-15E Strike Eagle jet deafened the room with a constant roar. Wearing two sets of ear protection and a helmet, a technician inspected the $4.8 million part as it rested on an elevated cradle inside the testing facility here.
Moments later, the technician made his way to a safe spot behind the engine. Its powerful afterburner then kicked on, showcasing a long, blue flame howling into a tunnel. Hurricane-like winds whirled around the test area as other technicians viewed diagnostic readings from an enclosed control center.
From the tiny center, Tech. Sgt. Antwon Parker used a hand throttle to rev the engine in order to, as he put it, "bang it around," to jar any hidden malfunctions, such as air, oil or fuel leaks.
Each month, Parker’s section of 12 technicians tests about 18 jet engines at the "T9" facility after the parts have been repaired by mechanics, also from the 48th Component Maintenance Squadron.
Nearby, two other test facilities, called "hush houses," test another 15 engines already fitted on jets every month.
"Obviously, we’re doing a good job or they wouldn’t keep flying," said Parker.
"We want to make sure [the engines are] good to go so the pilot can head downrange, drop the bombs and come back safely."
Downrange, sand can be a big problem for jet engines. Birds, rocks and other objects sucked into the engines cause damage as well, technicians say.
Leaks usually are the primary culprit and sometimes can be hard to locate. Moving parts and slippery surfaces from oil and fuel make the task even more difficult.
"There’s always danger out there," technician Staff Sgt. Justin Keane said. "You just have to be on your toes."
Potential danger and working with an expensive product is why handpicked technicians are chosen for the test-run facilities.
"You want someone responsible and well-rounded who knows a lot about the engine and is also good at troubleshooting," said Master Sgt. Abraham Deany, in charge of the section.
The lives of pilots also rest in their hands.
"We’d rather have it break out here than break in an aircraft," Deany said of the mended engines.
Lakenheath’s aircraft fleet uses two variations of Pratt & Whitney’s F100 engine. The 220-type engine is for F-15C Eagle models and the 229 is for F-15E models.
Pratt & Whitney claims that the 229 engine, the most advanced F100 variant, has had zero recorded engine-related loss of aircraft in more than 15 years with the U.S. Air Force, according to a news release. Numbers for the 220 engine were unavailable.
Furthermore, out of 6,500 F100 engines produced, 5,500 are still in service, the release added.
The F-15 engines may be getting older, but problems due to its age don’t seem to be rising.
"To be honest, we had more problems when they first came out than we do now," Deany said. "You have to work the bugs out as you go along."