TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – “Spacious” is not a word used to describe the center accessory compartment of a KC-10 Extender.
The 1-foot wide, 6-feet long workspace isn’t for the claustrophobic and, coupled with toxic substances like fuel that can leak into other compartments of the aircraft, can be dangerous. The space can make short work of respirator filters, proving an ever-present challenge for those working in it.
Luckily, the 60th and 349th Maintenance Squadrons at Travis Air Force Base, California, have a failsafe: fuel tank extraction exercises.
The annual exercise, consisting of calling emergency services, evacuating affected personnel from an aircraft and beginning resuscitation protocol, combines with a series of computer-based trainings to turn what would otherwise be a frantic struggle to save an Airman trapped inside a remote area of an aircraft into a precise execution of procedure to ensure their safety.
“There’s definitely that instinct of wanting to be gung-ho and help an Airman who’s stuck in a desperate situation,” said Abraham Bernardo, 60th MXS fuels systems mechanic and one of the exercise’s most recent participants. “But when that instinct results in not just one trapped Airman, but two, we’re doubly screwed. The extraction exercise works to install that muscle memory in our maintainers so that when a situation potentially does happen, we’re ready to go with the correct procedures.”
It’s a testament to the Air Force’s commitment to their people, he added.
It’s in that same vein that the Air Force not only has protocol in place for would-be rescuers, but those who could be on the receiving end of that rescue as well.
Senior Airman Gustavo Ramirez-Vazquez, 60th MXS systems journeyman, who participated in the training along with Bernardo, recalled a time when he nearly found himself in need of an extraction.
“When I was deployed, there was a moment when I began to feel light-headed and queasy,” he recalled. “When you’re in the middle of a job, it can be hard to take a moment and check on how you’re feeling, but in addition to this training, we’re also taught how to identify those tell-tale signs. It can be a fine line between catching yourself and passing out, so that training can be a game-changer.”
Bernardo, too, has seen his fair share of close-calls.
“Above all, communication is key,” he said. “Whether that’s communication to emergency services or communication with your own team. One time, I was working in an enclosed space and the guy next to me said, ‘Dude, you know you’ve been cleaning that one surface for, like, five minutes, right?’ It can be that easy for the symptoms to creep up on you — I hadn’t even noticed.”
For leaders like Tech. Sgt. Ian Lindon, 60th MXS fuels systems supervisor, who oversaw the training, the exercise marks the total sum of not only the successes and progress of the Air Force, but its failures and shortcomings, too.
“At the end of the day, we don’t perform this training because we think it’s fun,” he said. “We do it because there have been fatalities in the past and we have been caught unprepared in the past. We do this training because on our watch, there won’t be another. On our watch, aircraft are going to fly and it’ll be because of our people.”