Air Force Featured Stories

Dangerous and dirty – MacDill “Tank Divers” power the fight

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Adam R. Shanks
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell. All things, living and mechanical, require a source of fuel and a system designed to convert that fuel into energy. Aircraft are no exception.

While cells are microscopic, their functions can be magnified to apply to a larger structure such as an aircraft, with many complex parts with unique roles combined to make an efficient force.

Think of the engine as mitochondria, powering its flight. But that engine cannot run without a source of fuel, and for that purpose there is a specialized group of Airmen charged with maintaining the systems that enable the KC-135 Stratotanker to use and deliver its fuel and helping power the Air Force around the world.

Known as “Tank Divers,” Airmen from the 6th Maintenance Squadron aircraft fuel systems section at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, constantly find themselves in a bind, looking for and fixing deterioration and leaks in the fuel systems of the aircraft.

“The access doors we use aren’t much larger than the size of a shoebox,” said Staff Sgt. Adrian Gonzalez, 6th MXS aircraft fuel systems craftsman. “Once inside, our movement is extremely restricted; it’s full of plumbing and reeks of jet fuel.”

Like any fuel source, fumes are the main cause of concern, and the smallest spark or electronic transmission could have deadly results.

“It’s a dirty, challenging job that requires a lot of patience and caution,” said Tech. Sgt. Steve Parina, 6th MXS aircraft fuel systems section shift supervisor. “We go through a huge list of procedures before and during our work using special equipment to detect oxygen levels and fuel in the air around us. The only thing smaller than the spaces we work in, is the room for error.”

Some tools are complex, such as the photoionization detector which detects the oxygen levels of the air, and will alarm the Airmen of hazardous conditions. However, another tool can be found in every home near the kitchen sink.

“One method of finding a leak in the fuel system, is to use dish soap and water,” said Gonzalez. “We’ll pressurize the fuel system with air, and spray a sudsy mixture into the compartments, and wherever the bubbles break, that tells us where the leak is.”

Gonzalez explained that most jobs on the fuel systems take an average of 12 hours to complete. However, one task this team undertook led to them winning Air Mobility Command’s innovation award.

With approximately 13,000 man hours spanning six months, the 6th MXS aircraft fuel systems shop was able to completely remove a 30-year-old topcoat inside of all of MacDill AFB’s KC-135 aircraft in 2017. Due to its age, the previous topcoat began to deteriorate and began causing issues in the engines. The team was able to pinpoint this, and create a new way of inspecting and repairing the issue, which is now being used Air Force wide.

A claustrophobic and dirty job such as this would turn most away, but aircraft fuel systems Airmen do it day-in and day-out to keep fuel flowing. When compared to a cell, they are similar to the molecules inside, working to repair and detect things that could cause malfunction. Each “organelle” and structure uses its unique function to allow safe, dependable operation at all times.