Defying Gravity: MXS Test Cell guarantees C-5 fit for flight

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Melissa Phillips
  • 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
A handful of Airmen here are responsible for inspecting and fixing $6 million worth of equipment that propels the 800,000-pound C-5 Galaxy to deliver cargo to warfighters around the world.

"This is close as you can come to being a pilot without having wings," said Vincent Alois, 436th Maintenance Squadron jet engine technician and a technical sergeant Air Reserve Technician for the 512th MXS.

Engine Test Cell technicians are charged with ramping up and simulating flight conditions on the gigantic cargo planes' engines - on land. The engine is mounted to the ceiling from a massive steel structure, and the Test Cell technician's start, run, fix problems and provide their approval that each engine is fit for flight.

"We are doing everything required of a pilot, and we are responsible for 30 extra parameters that pilots don't look at," said Mr. Alois. "We ensure the engine's many systems are functioning properly and fine tune the engine for optimal thrust."

Their job is to make the engine air worthy for flight. The Test Cell inspects three to four engines each month. They replace external components like fuel pumps, hydraulic systems and filters, and check for cracks, weak points and potential problems.

After the Test Cell clears an engine, the engines retain a shelf life of 360 days awaiting to be installed on a C-5 anywhere in the world.

"We take the assumption that everything is broken until we prove otherwise," said Dan Weimer, 436th MXS Test Cell foreman and senior Test Cell operator, who says by nature he is a self-professed 'the tank is half empty' type of person.

It takes about two years of intensive training to certify a Test Cell technician, because there is so much to learn, according to Mr. Weimer.

"It's like you are operating a giant vacuum cleaner, but you're not allowed to suck up anything," said Mr. Weimer, who is also a senior master sergeant traditional reservist in the 512th MXS.

Even the environment is a potential foe. During the winter season, the Test Cell technicians have to meticulously shovel and sweep the exterior and interior of the Test Cell floor for snow.

Mr. Weimer said if an ice chunk would get sucked into the engine during a test run, it could create thousands of dollars of damage to the engine and in the worst-case scenario, render it unusable.

"Accountability is important," said Staff Sgt. Jason Landfried, 436th Maintenance Test Cell NCO in-charge. "If you drop something, you stop everything until you find it."

Housekeeping is second nature to the technicians, because they know from experience that preparation is half the battle in their job.

"Every sixty days we climb up in the rafters and check the test bay air inlet path for loose bolts and stuff," said Mr. Weimer.

Birds and rodents can also create a problem. Birds find their way into the rafters, which are a dizzying two-stories up, get stuck and need a little help finding their way out of the giant vault.

For one Test Cell technician, what some people might look at as an inconvenience is a source of pride and work satisfaction.

"The best part about my job is getting dirty," said Senior Airman Matt Mendes, 436th MXS Test Cell journeyman, who works with various lubricants that protect the engines' mechanical parts. "I'm a hands-on person."

It's part of the gravitation that pulls the techs to this particular job.
"In (other shops), you take a part off and put a new one on," said Sergeant Landfried. "Here, you have to troubleshoot and determine if it is an electrical problem or defective component. I like that type of challenge."

It's a challenge that often involves tempting gravity.

"When the engine is running, you don't go past this black line," said Mr. Weimer as he pointed at a black line drawn on the floor directly under the engine. "If you do, you could get sucked into the engine and it would be a bad day for all."

It's an occupational hazard that doesn't faze Mr. Weimer, who likes walking the edge in front of the black line to look for leaks or problems on the engine.

"To determine the source of leaks while the engine is running, you have to use your hand to divert airflow across the engine exterior covers," said Mr. Weimer. "My arms don't have any loose skin, but you can actually see my skin and muscle flapping in the breeze of the engines-air flow."

It's an experience few will ever feel, see or hear - and that's just the way the Test Cell wants it.

"We do a good job at keeping the noise in the building," said Weimer. "There are 56 tubes of sound-reducing material that suck the noise from the wind leaving the building exhaust pipe, so outdoors it only sounds like a rumble - not the scream you hear when an engine starts up on the flightline."

Either a rumble or a scream, the noise made by a C-5 engine is a symphony to Mr. Weimer.

"When you see a C-5 in the air, I know Test Cell makes that dependable noise up there in the sky," said Mr. Weimer. "That's my purpose in life."