Sea Story of the Week: How duct tape fixes United States Naval aircraft
I can feel the gaze of the maintenance master chief beating down on the back of my neck from a mile away. At that moment, I exist in the paradox of being micromanaged by the front office while working a set schedule, flying sorties, and doing minimal maintenance.
Night check, on the other hand, is a different kind of ass-backwards; catch a couple of late flights in and fix whatever gripes the officers make up, including classics like:
- "It smells like burning toast in the back of the aircraft."
- "The rudder sticks when held in position for too long."
- "The seats are uncomfortable."
VAW-125 E2C sits on a flight line
A flight rolls in. Unphased, I throw up a salute, welcome the aircrew back, and start my inspection.
Every DET has its ups and downs. Sometimes you're flying exercises at TOPGUN in the middle of Fallon, Nevada, sometimes you're drinking double-shot margaritas with a parrot on your shoulder in Key West. This time, it was the latter.
I stroll into the hangar for muster a little disoriented and hungover from exploring the town the night before. Another surprising Navy DET tradition is to drink — and to drink heavily. Detachments are the only time fraternization is brushed under the rug; an E1 sailor and an officer can be seen throwing back a couple shots, calling each other by their first names, but find their military bearing by 0600 the next morning.
Naval Air Station Key West: Where magic happens.
I check the flight schedule and don my gear as I see my name scribbled on the board. My supervisor yells for me as I'm running out the door to catch my flight.
"Listen Kim, the sooner we get this sh*t done, the sooner we're off — and the sooner we're off, the sooner we're at Cowboy Bill's!"
Blurry, much like the memory of the night.
Photo by Sung Kim
On Wednesdays, the neon lights of Cowboy Bill's is a beautiful sight for any metaphorically shipwrecked sailor, marooned far from home and looking for good times, cheap drinks, and morally flexible women. There, they honor a time-old tradition, one that's highly recommended by the saltier vets in the squadron: topless mechanical bull riding. And it's every bit of Christmas your six-year-old heart could ever dream of.
Warrant's "Cherry Pie" will exist for as long as strip clubs do.
I'm one flight away from having Warrant's "Cherry Pie" ring in my ears and I've already picked up scent of the drunken regret ahead of me when I get the call over the radio: My pilot discovered a hole in one of the stabilizing rudders. Unlike most complaints, this was an actual gripe that downs an aircraft. And if the aircraft is down, pilots can't get their hours in.
I mourn the loss of the wonderland filled with inebriated bachelorettes slow-grinding on a mechanical bull that I'd built in my foolish imagination.
A quarter-sized divot in the rudder stands between me and my paradise; a quarter-sized problem that's about to be fixed with a dollar-sized piece of duct tape. I run into the shop, grab a roll of duct tape, patch the hole, and epoxy the sides so that the integrity of the tape stays flush while in flight. My supervisor signs off on it, calls maintenance control, and we've got the green light.
Upon pre-flight inspection, my pilot calls me up to the top of the aircraft. "What is that, Kim? Duct tape?" I panic.
"No sir, it's high-speed aero-tape sir," I lie, reflexively. What am I doing? Why wouldn't he know what duct tape looks like?
He's puzzled because he's never heard of it, so he summons my supervisor. He hasn't heard of it because it doesn't exist, just like my soon-to-be-over naval career.
"High-speed aero-tape?" My supervisor chuckles. "You're lucky we're on DET son, as soon as this b*tch comes back, write that sh*t up for day check. We're going to Cowboy Bill's."
I was bailed out. My supervisor had my back like he always did and confirmed that the hardware store duct tape my lieutenant (with an engineering degree) saw, was, in fact, a fictional, quick temporary fix patch substance called, "High-Speed Aero-Tape."
But hey, if you can't fix it with duct tape, it can't be fixed.