A tall tale of tail tipping

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Vincent De Groot
  • 185th Air Refueling Wing

Removing the tail fin from a KC-135 is kind of a “big” deal. It is so big, and so rarely done at a local level, that people in the Iowa Air National Guard Repair and Reclamation shop in Sioux City refer to “tipping the tail” as a “once in a career thing.”

Because of structural damage to the rudder of one of the unit’s Stratotankers, the entire 25 foot structure recently needed to be removed in order to replace a damaged rudder.

According to Master Sgt. Jason Otto, 185th Air Refueling Wing Repair and Reclamation shop supervisor, removing the 2500 pound behemoth in the unit’s main hangar offered a unique challenge. Otto has been working in repair and reclamation since the 185th converted to the KC-135 in 2003. He said they have never had to remove a KC-135 tail in Sioux City.

“It is something that you don't do very often,” Otto commented, “but, I knew the team I had and I knew that they were more than capable of being able to perform the job.” 

The rarity of removing the tail required hiring a crane to do the heavy lifting. Otto said the job also involved soliciting some advice and some helping hands from the 155th Air Refueling Wing, a neighboring Air Guard KC-135 unit located in Lincoln, Nebraska.

“I had six of my own guys and five guys that came up from the Lincoln Air National Guard so we had quite a few hands on deck which was nice,” said Otto.

Airman 1st Class Mark Van Voorst started working in repair and reclamation in December, 2017 when he first enlisted in his late 30’s. He said he brings some age and civilian mechanical experience to the job, but he commented that being one of the “new guys” was a great experience.

“There are a lot of moving parts, you need to have good situational awareness, be aware of your surroundings, be patient, take your time and not rush it,” Van Voorst said.

Repair and Reclamation team members, Master Sgt. Dayrl Newman along with Van Voorst spent several hours maneuvering their boom lift around the tail section of the KC-135 preparing and rigging the crane. Newman said he helped remove a tail from a KC-135 once before during a deployment to Al Udeid Air Base. He said it is rare to remove a KC-135 tail because it is rare to have damage on the rudder. Newman added that tipping the tail was an extremely unique opportunity for someone like Van Voorst.

“We actually have three new traditionals [Traditional guard members] that just got back from tech school and it is awesome training for them,” Newman said. “To do something like this at the beginning of your career is amazing.”

Before they could get started Newman and Van Voorst said the job required disconnecting several panels then removing some hydraulic and electrical lines. They said once the tail was tilted to the side they needed to remove two remaining large hinge pins. 

“You never know how difficult it is going to be until you get into the thick of it,” Newman added. “You try to remain fluid and expect the unexpected.”

Once the tail was securely on the ground, more team members swarmed the appendage in order to access the damage and immediately went to work like physicians at the surgical table.

Otto explained that there is always a sense of urgency in aircraft maintenance because of the high operations tempo requirements with the KC-135. 

“It is counting against our non-mission capable time,” Otto explained. “We need these planes to do missions.”

As part of programmed depot maintenance, tail fin assembles are routinely inspected at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex at Tinker Air Force Base. When necessary, the large complex at Tinker allows them to replace rudders without much complication.

Like watching an episode of Top Gear or Monster Garage the KC-135 mechanics in Sioux City are not immune to a few setbacks. Once they had the parts they needed and were ready to go and it took just a few hours to the reverse the process. First reattaching the repaired tail, then tipping it back up, making the Statotanker air worthy once again. 

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