by Jenny Gordon
Robins Public Affairs
5/6/2016 – ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. — Lie down, then slowly scoot on your side or belly while wearing a head-to-toe protective suit and respirator, and you’ve just begun a day in the life of an aircraft mechanic who works inside a C-130 fuel tank.
It’s hot, dark, smells faintly of jet fuel – and you’ve only got inches to spare as you go about your job. It’s been compared to crawling and working inside of a toolbox, your car glove compartment or even under a bed. Doesn’t sound like a typical day in the office, does it?
When a mechanic works inside a confined space – a space that has limited or restricted means for entry or exit – a second individual is stationed outside to help monitor activities.
Should Jeremy Kahler, a 6-foot-2-inch aircraft electrician with the 560th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, suddenly lose consciousness inside an outboard fuel tank, it’s not his attendant’s job to enter that confined space to rescue him. That call goes to Robins Fire Emergency Services.
During a recently warm Thursday afternoon, just as 1 p.m. approached, six fire trucks arrived on the scene at Bldg. 2390.
The scenario: Kahler – who’s worked at Robins six years – is trapped and in need of assistance, and firefighters must conduct a Confined Space Rescue operation.
Mechanics like Kahler, formerly with the squadron’s Center Wing Box program, who work in confined spaces like a C-130 fuel tank can perform duties such as painting, sealant and foam removal, and making repairs while closer to the ground before they’re fixed on the aircraft.
Before firefighters arrive, he shows off the wing’s number one tank and several areas where he typically spends most of his time routing and clamping wires.
He usually goes in the wing with his feet first, when it’s an option, or head first through a hole at the top.
Once in, depending where his work is, he gets down and scrunches into a ball as he maneuvers about. When he’s sitting down inside, his head can pop up through that same hole.
“I’m a fairly skinny guy, and I can fit anywhere in this airplane, so I tend to be the one fitting in these small places. This would be the worst job if I was claustrophobic,” he said.
An entry crew consisting of firefighters Rick Hypes and Randy Hankinson walk to where one of the outer wings is raised on a platform. Lead firefighter Tony Tabler has been stationed nearby, gearing up for the department’s arrival.
“It looks like you could walk into a fire with it, but you can’t. These reflect about 90 percent of ambient heat,” said Tabler, referring to the silver airfield firefighting suits the crew is wearing. Those differ from the structural gear others have on; that material is tougher for physical activities and made for fighting things like structural fires in buildings.
Hypes and Hankinson climb to the top of the wing. Their personal protective equipment, which includes gloves, boots and breathing apparatus, is essential. Hypes looks into the small hole at the top, peering intently inside at the dark corners, searching for Kahler. Hypes is holding something in his hand.
This gas meter detects several types of gas levels, including hydrogen sulfide, oxygen, carbon monoxide and LEL, or lower explosive limits.
Once safe, they remove their gear.
“Just because he’s up there breathing doesn’t mean that he’s safe. There could be gas coming out. Until they’re 100 percent sure it’s safe, they won’t even come off air, “said Tabler. “We’ll make sure there’s at least breathable air in there so we can take it (mask) off. We’ll also go in with a system of extra bottles so that if something happens we’ll still have air.”
This training occurs regularly. It’s the second one in this facility for confined space rescue training – a critical one since the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex churns out dozens of aircraft through programmed depot maintenance throughout the year.
“My first concern is safety. We then check for oxygen and flammable content. Once declared safe, we took off our gear and checked the patient. We made contact with him, found out what the problem was and decided to go in,” said Hypes, a Robins firefighter since 1990. “The hardest part of this was finding the victim. Overall it went very well.”
Hankinson, who joined the department just nine months ago, added, “This training is very important considering the amount of time these workers spend in confined spaces.
“The possibility of someone getting stuck or injured inside is very real. Our being able to come out and work in a real-world situation is very beneficial to us.”