Last updated: 8 Jan. 1997
THE REACTIVATION (January - August 1995)
In this section, I'll discuss the aircraft restoration process, and significant program events occurring in this eight month period. All flight related and specific maintenance personnel information will be discussed in more detail in later sections. Starting the first week in January 1995, Terry and I moved into the Antelope Valley Inn of Lancaster California, and would remain there for the next 14 months. We were still in TDY status funded by Big Safari, with Z our boss. Our primary function was oversight. We were the only AF personnel on site with prior maintenance experience on the SR-71. We were to ensure that Lockheed brought the aircraft back to AF standards, and followed all prescribed technical specifications and procedures. I got involved in the decision making process, and Terry primarily concentrated on the quality of work aspect. We were also to report all problems and suggestions to the AF Program Manager. The first chunk of money, $20,000,000 was also made available that week.
The first order of business was to perform fuel leak evaluations on the four SR-71's, and to select the best two. This was accomplished at Site 2 at Palmdale, by completely filling all aircraft fuel tanks, pressurizing the system with Liquid Nitrogen (LN2), and allowing it to sit for about two hours. A hand full of previous SR-71 mechanics were borrowed from the LM U-2 operation to perform the tests. At completion, we would defuel the aircraft, and head to the next one. Fuel and LN2 was trucked in from NASA, and the first evaluation was performed on January 5th on 967. It had significant leaks in the nose wheel well, forward mission bays, forward bottom wing areas, top wing areas, with a severe leak (a real gusher folks) coming from tank 3 at the fuselage split line. We checked out 968 five days later. It showed significant leaks from the right main wheel well, the entire bottom fuselage, right upper fillet areas, drag chute compartment, mixer area, and two extremely severe gushers coming from the tank 3 splitline and the left aft wing beam areas. On January 12th, 971 was flown in from EAFB by NASA's Ed Schneider. The flight lasted about 10 minutes, afterburners were used for takeoff, with only 20,000 pounds of fuel onboard, and with the landing gear locked in the down position. On the 13th, we performed the evaluation of 962. This proved to be disastrous, with severe leaks just about everywhere. It leaked so bad, LN2 pressure would not build up, and we had to obtain more fuel from NASA to perform the leak test on 971, which was done three days later. 971 was in great shaped compared to the first three, with no gushers, and only five areas of concern. So the aircraft were ordered 971, 967, 968, and lastly 962. Of course, we still wouldn't have a feel for the repairs needed until the fuel cells could be opened and evaluated. Let's just say, 962 was parked and forgotten again. That was kind of sad, as it was my favorite aircraft, and Terry and I used to crew it together at BAFB.
On January 23rd, the three SR's were towed into building 602 at Plant 10. Although we only reactivated two (971 and 967), the program office was still trying to get a third added to the effort. At the same time, equipment and supplies were arriving from Barstow, and hanger power was being modified. The first priority was to open all the fuel tanks for further evaluation. All three aircraft were jacked, contoured, and all fuel tanks were opened. This is where our fears were validated. Most fuselage tanks showed reverted sealant. In other words, a normally hardened rubber type of substance was turning back into it's liquid state, and looked and felt like bubble gum. All the wing tanks showed this reversion, especially at the aft beams and fuselage seams. The wing tanks also showed a lot of blistering. So now, what to do with only 9 tubes of sealant available, and several more months of waiting for 3M to produce another batch? After many meetings, a decision was made on how to attack the fuel sealant problems. Since 971 was in the best shape, all 9 tubes would be used sparingly on that aircraft. We would identify all safety of flight areas, repair only those, and make the aircraft flight worthy, and nurse the jet along until the new batch of sealant arrived. 967 would have to wait for the new shipment. So on the first ship, we concentrated our efforts inside tanks 1, 3, 4, and the fuselage seams and aft beams in the wing tanks. This process took about six weeks to complete, and to our surprise, we still had a couple of tubes left. These would be saved to repair any future leaks. Since 967 wouldnít be required for service for several months, it's fuel tanks could wait until the new batch arrived, and a more complete repair would be performed.
What follows is a short description of the maintenance performed on both 971 and 967. Both aircraft were completely depaneled for accomplishment of the 200 hour HPO, wings were raised, spikes and inlet components removed, and engines removed and sent to Aviall at EAFB for inspection and testing. One major concern was the removal of sand from the aircraft, and mechanics spent many days vacuuming, blowing and wiping these from every area on the aircraft. Outdated parts were changed, and the entire aircraft was lubricated. Updated pyrotechnics were installed for the ejection system, and datalink modifications were accomplished. Six upgrade service bulletins were also accomplished, which included four for defensive systems, one for the IFF transponder, and one for the ANS. All tires and brakes were changed, operational checkouts were performed on every aircraft system, and engine and inlet components were reinstalled. Once all that was complete, the aircraft were towed to Site 2, and fuel system leak evaluations were re-accomplished to validate the repairs, and complete fuel system checkouts were performed. Both aircraft required some additional work in this area. After all this was completed, the aircraft were put on the trim pad, and the engines again roared to life. That was a great sound, and gave everyone a real sense of accomplishment! Most of our efforts were concentrated on 971, and we got to 967 when time permitted. Also, with the receipt of the new tank sealant, 967's fuel repairs would take twice the time. It took us about 13 weeks to finish 971, and a total of about 30 on 967.
At the same time, many other efforts were underway. Eight personnel from BAFB arrived to assist. Four spent six weeks at Barstow performing complete supply inventories, which helped Pat Murphy in determining equipment and part short-falls, which he quickly took care of. Two assisted Terry and I in various management functions, as we were totally consumed with aircraft related matters, and were severely behind in reporting and paper work requirements. We greatly appreciated the help given by MSgt's Monty Gingrich and Dave Randall in that area. Two others, MSgt Smith and TSgt Ben Reines were brought in as experts to repair the hot gigs. I don't think everyone completely understands the value of their efforts. They took five hot gigs without spare components, mixed and matched parts, giving us two fully functional units! This is something NASA was unable to accomplish in over five years, and our guys did it in three weeks! Without these units, our aircraft would not have been able to fly. For those of you that have never seen a hot gig in operation, itís really quite unique. All four aircraft hydraulic systems are heated to over 500 degrees and operated by these units, with the sole purpose of burning oxygen out of each system. Mechanics wearing fire suits operate these units and the hanger quickly fills with smoke. This is also the best way to discover small leaks that would normally not be seen.
A series of monthly Technical Interface Meetings (TIM) also started during this period. These were designed to bring all key players together, and coordinate all aspects of the program. The locations of these meetings were alternated between the players at Palmdale, EAFB, BAFB, Eglin AFB, Washington DC, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City. Usually 40-50 people attended, and it proved to be a great forum to get things accomplished. It allowed us to quickly coordinate all aspects of the program, that would have taken months through other kinds of correspondence.
I haven't said much about the Barstow warehouses to this point. The first time I walked in, I was amazed. It was like a candy store for this aging Crew Chief. Everything I ever wanted in the past for my aircraft was there! I wondered why I couldn't get it before? Even raw bulk titanium, in mass quantities was there. I saw over 40 souped up Chevy 454 engines complete with headers, which are the engines we used in the start carts to fire up the J-58's. Also on the racks were over 900 main and 400 nose tires. Also observed were over 30 Pratt and Witney J-58 engines. Let's just say, for the most part, no shortages of parts. There were exceptions, but Pat Murphy was able to take care of all these in a most timely manner.
Around June, Pat Murphy and I had an opportunity to visit a warehouse at Kelly AFB Texas. When the program closed, all documents and publications were sent there. We rummaged through countless boxes, and found much that would be useful for the Reactivation, and had them shipped to Palmdale. It was an amazing collection of history, and some documents went all the way back to the A-12 program.
Ground support equipment was a problem. We had all the SR-71 specific equipment that was needed, but lacked the equipment that is commonly used throughout the AF. We had no Liquid Oxygen (LOX), LN2, or nitrogen servicing carts, and very few stands and test equipment. It was ACCís responsibility to search closing bases, and procure these things for us. What we received shocked us. It looked like stuff that had been condemned or junked. Everything was rusted out and had parts missing. For example, it took over 20 LOX carts to make 8 good ones. LM's mechanics did an incredible job refurbishing all received.
Our AF aircrews finally arrived on the scene in April, and a Det office was established at EAFB. Lt. Col. Gil Luloff became our Commander. We didnít see them that much. They were very busy with NASA being checked out in the flight simulator.
Vehicles were another sore subject. ACC was also to provide us with base closure vehicles to perform our daily maintenance functions, such as trucks, vans, fuel trucks and tow vehicles. Months went by waiting, and we had to borrow from the U-2 folks a lot. What we finally received were in very poor shape. EAFB and BAFB motor pools helped out greatly, and got them back into shape for us. Z also allowed us to also acquire some GSA vehicles.
The old underground JP-7 storage tanks at Site 2 were made acceptable, and allowed us to stop trucking in fuel from EAFB. Pat Murphy was instrumental it getting this accomplished, as it required a wavier due to todays environmental laws.
Many more events took place, and these were just the highlights! We're now up and running, and it's time to fly!
© Christopher W. Bennett
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