Last updated: 8 Jan. 1997


It was determined early, that LM would provide all personnel to maintain the aircraft. Prior to the program being funded, they put together a proposal, and boasted about the number of past SR-71 experienced personnel that were knocking on the door to participate. They were a combination of retired military personnel and prior LM employees. Well, what we ended up with was quite different. In the early months of 1995, about eight previously SR-71 qualified personnel were loaned to us from the U-2 program to start our effort. These eight became permanent to the program shortly thereafter. Most noteworthy are Richard Daly (Prior Flight Test Crew Chief) who became 971s Crew Chief, John Reigel (Prior SR-71 Crew Chief for the AF and Flight Test) who became 967's Crew Chief, and Rolland Tite (Prior Flight Test Avionics Supervisor) who became the Lead Avionics Supervisor. Both Crew Chiefs knew the aircraft front and back. Rolland was a walking wealth of knowledge, and was one of those guys who could fix anything with wires! He retired about seven months later, and then was re-hired as a consultant when it was obvious his expertise was sorely missed. LM had full intentions to hand pick all the rest of the technicians. That's when the union stepped in, and delivered a severe blow. LM was forced to hire previously laid off personnel, before selecting from those outside the union. So basically, we ended up with about thirty mechanics who had never before even touched the SR-71. Don't get me wrong, most were great guys, but it created a huge training problem, and slowed down maintenance quite a bit. It also made our job of oversight much more intense, and definite quality issues became apparent as will be demonstrated in this section. Once we were in full swing, LM ran two shifts. Day shift was the most experienced, and night shift was minimally manned, with no experience. Retried AF Chief Master Sergeant (CMSgt) Lew Sulslie was hired in about July of 1995, and became the Site Manager for Det 2.

Sensor folks started showing up around the end of March. These included support for the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System (ASARS I), the Optical Bar Camera (OBC), the Technical Objective Camera (TEOC), and various defensive (DEF) systems. Nearly all had previous SR-71 experience and were very professional. It was great seeing some old familiar faces. They worked under contract with LM, and set up shop in building 601 at Plant 10. They quickly acquired all their systems and equipment, and were never a hold up to the program. John Murphy was later hired as the Sensor Manager for LM. The only problem I ever saw, was the inability at times to allow them access to the aircraft for sensor integration. Sometimes, there was just too much maintenance going on for them to fit in.

LM also employed many experienced Avionics Technicians in the areas of the Digital Mission Recording System (DMRS), the Digital Automated Flight Control Systems (DAFCS), in Communications and Navigation (COMNAV) systems, and in the Astro Navigation System (ANS). Many other vendors were also put on contract for various other services.

NASA played an integral role early on. Until LMs hiring was complete, their technicians supported our aircraft, especially in the areas of DMRS, DAFCS, ANS, and engines. They also provided us with needed equipment and resources until our program was on-line. The SR-71 Program at NASA was run by Dave Lux, with Steve Schmidt as his assistant. Steve became involved with our efforts, especially in regards to the scheduling of all mission aspects early on. NASA also maintained SR-71B 956, which was used as part of the re-qualification process for our AF aircrews. Their Crew Chief and mechanics were quite experienced, and we never had to question any of their maintenance practices. Their QA Inspector was Mike Relja, a previous AF and LM SR-71 supervisor. The only problem we encountered with NASA was their limited work hours. They only ran a single shift, which meant that if a problem was discovered on launch, there usually wasn't much time to attempt a repair to try a re-launch the same day. They also employed a company called Aviall to maintain the J-58 engines at EAFB. Here, Bob Applin, Mike Jerfy, and Mark Hargrove were exceptional mechanics. All three previously worked for Pratt & Whitney in the Flight Test Propulsion shop in the old days, and were the most knowledgeable jet guys I have ever met. Additional personnel were added to Aviall to support our operation as well. They re-qualified LM Crew Chiefs to perform engine runs, generated spare engines, trained LM mechanics to remove and install engines, conducted engine test cell runs, and serviced Triethylborane (TEB) prior to each launch of every SR-71.

Early in the program, NASA provided support for our aircrew's pressure suits. They maintained them, and assisted in the dressing of our aircrews. A few months after we were flying, BAFB personnel took over this function. Usually four to five were rotated on TDY status about every sixty days. This still continues today.

There's a couple more LM employees that deserve special mention. Dennis Avilia and a guy we'll just call "Red". Denny was loaned from the U-2 program due to his SR-71 fuel cell experience. Red was chosen as his lead man, and would later become the "fuel tank boss" for Det 2. With very limited fuel sealant resources, Denny's guidance is the only reason 971 was made air worthy ahead of schedule.

So there you have it. We have a great deal of expertise in the technical areas, but not much in the way of routine maintenance, which occupies about 80% of all work performed. What must be understood is the difference between AF and contractor support. In the old days, the AF primarily maintained the SR-71. We had just about unlimited resources, optimum manning, pride in ownership, and driven by a single purpose ìthe mission of national defenseî. In this new program, LM is on a fixed budget with very limited resources. They are greatly under manned due to lack of funds. Pride in the SR-71 now is only found in those with past experience. And most importantly, LM is a business, and as such, judges success by the profit margin. The mission of national defense no longer drives this program, and without a world crisis, thatís not likely to change.

Contractor maintenance was selected due to it's affordability, continuity, and speed. While I'll agree with the first two reasons, speed is not evident here for many reasons. LM is under-manned due to limited funding. This lack of money also prohibits the amount of over time that can be utilized. They also only run one fully capable shift, with the night shift performing minimal maintenance. The SR-71 is a very maintenance intensive aircraft. At times, repairs need to be worked through the weekend. The hourly paid mechanics cannot be forced to work weekends, and have to be asked to do so. So when performing maintenance on weekends, you take who you can get, which may not in many cases, be who you really need. So, when you put all these things together, you have to expect a great deal of slow maintenance, and thatís exactly what has occurred. Terry and I had a system worked out in the early days. When maintenance needed to be accomplished, we would ask ourselves how long it would have taken the AF to perform that specific task. Then weíd multiply that by three, and that would usually be exactly how long it would take LM. By 1996, they had gotten much better, and we only had to multiply by two, which is really quite outstanding, all things considered.

LM also is a unique work environment. Like the AF, orders and goals come down from the top, and filter to the Managers and Supervisors. Unlike the AF, these Managers and Supervisors will say "can do" even if it's impossible. Even when things go a bit wrong, the word goes to the top that everything's just fine. Thus things sometimes get accomplished at the expense of the mechanics, and often jeopardize the quality of work and safety of the aircraft. I'm sure many will disagree with this analysis, but I'm here to tell you, it does exist. When Supervisor requests became too outrageous, the mechanics and technicians would let me know. Why? Because they were also afraid to approach their Supervisors for fear for their job, and they knew that I would deal with it. They knew what was right, and also knew I would react to it. So in a sense they used me quite a bit, but I had no problem with that when it was justified. Having their trust and mutual respect created a great relationship, and always helped me stay abreast of what was really going on.

Now Iíll discuss some situations that popped up that will yield a much better insight to the whole maintenance aspect of the current program. First, let me restate my position there. I was the AF maintenance and technical representative in charge of contractor oversight to ensure their compliance to AF standards and procedures. This included quality and safety. In a nut shell, I was to ensure that a quality product was provided to AF crew members.

Let me start with aircraft 971. As stated earlier, the condition of the fuel sealant was a major concern. We didn't know what to expect once the aircraft started flying hot sorties, and we made that point clear to the AF and LM Program Managers. 971 was a leaker, and we repaired all "safety of flight" leaks prior to the first launch. Much to our dismay, new leaks did spring up after about every other flight. LM spent a lot of hours inside these tanks between flights, and did a great job. Due to these repairs, the program time-lines started to fall drastically behind schedule. Pressure was turn up from within LM, and they made an attempt to rush the maintenance. I had to put a halt to that to ensure a quality product. I can recall a conversation with Justin Murphy where he angrily told me "You've got to get rid of your Beale mentality, and get into the Detachment mode". I guess I can understand the pressure he was under, but found this to be a sobering experience as to his perception of the reality. Here we've got a bunch of trainees, basically only one actual working shift, one aircraft that hasn't flown in over 5 years, fuel leaks everywhere, and he wants to pretend this should function like an operational Det of old? Early on, Z, NASA, and our AF Pilots were continually told that 971 could be flown twice a week. And we continually told all three offices that unless 971 was downed for a few weeks for needed fuel repairs, that would be next to impossible. I guess I was a bit off, because during the next nine weeks, we did manage to fly one of them twice. Then 971 was downed, and fuel repairs were accomplished, at the request of our AF Pilots who were getting a bit tired of rescheduling tanker support all the time.

During 1995, nearly 40% of all grounding (non-flyable) discrepancies on both aircraft were fuel system related. At many times, I had to specifically direct some of these be fixed. They continually attempted to disregard technical directives in the hopes of not losing a sortie. One situation that readily comes to mind is in the case of inter-tank leakage on 971. Prior to a launch, it was noticed that quantity levels in tank 2 had increased, and tank 3 had decreased. We transferred the fuel around, and got her airborne. I asked that an inter-tank leak test be performed after the flight. This was accomplished the next day. They opened tank 3, and then filled tank 2 with fuel. When tank 2 was about 75% full, fuel started to gush into tank 3 and came rushing out onto the floor. We calculated the leak rate at about 27 gallons per hour. By the book, we're allowed 2 gallons per hour. LM argued this point, and said weíd never find a tank that leaked within those limits. They wanted to let it go, but I directed it be fixed to technical specifications. After two attempts at the repair, they were able to bring it within limits, and we were back in the sky about a week later. LMís tank sealers always did an awesome job when they were given the chance! In this case, they placed a man inside tank 3 on a respirator, and he physically watched the fuel gushing in to pinpoint the leak. I don't think Iíve ever heard of anyone doing that before.

I said earlier that we had a definite experience problem, and quality of work was in jeopardy. What follows are some examples of this. I donít bring these up to place blame on any individual, but only to show that certain expertise was in short supply, which caused many quality and safety concerns. LM was never willing to admit to that fact, and continually told Z and our AF Pilots that our perceptions were exaggerated. They made every attempt to blame most Program maintenance delays on my inability to become a team player. In essence, they formulated the opinion that I was too tough on them, and was doing everything possible to hamper the Program. Unfortunately, most of management were prior aircrew members, and as such, were unable to fully identify with the maintenance concept we operated under. We went by the book, an many were unable and unwilling to deal with that.

During the very first launch of 967, Terry and I had to continually get involved in many safety issues. It was obvious that many mechanics had never been around an aircraft with running engines, as we had to constantly pull them away from the engine inlets, and literally tell them to remove their hats and all loose objects hanging from their clothing. That may not sound like a big deal, but those who have been around running aircraft can appreciate the dangers. After just a small amount of training, they were fine. That's all they needed, and it should have been given them prior to that day!

As stated earlier, the first three low and slow FCFs on 967 failed, and all for the same reason. Fuel quantities and Center of Gravity (CG) indications were completely erratic. No attempt can be made to go hot in this condition. Between all these flights, no solid reason could be found, and parts were changed that "might probably" be the cause. We call this "shot-gunning", and sometimes it is all you can do on an SR-71. After the third flight, it was discovered that eight fuel probes located inside tanks 1, 2, 4, and 5 had been mis-wired during their reinstallation after the initial fuel cell repairs. Again, lack of experience and proper supervision was the issue here.

During the very next flight of 967, which was the first hot FCF, the aircraft had to divert to Nellis AFB Nevada due to trapped fuel in tank 6. We sent a recovery crew, and launched it back to Palmdale two days later where repairs would be made. To make a long story short, during some of the shot-gunning done for the previous fuel problem, four check valves in tank 5 were changed, but three were installed backwards. This prevented the normal flow of fuel from tank 6 to 5, and indeed, fuel was trapped. Again this is due to lack of experience, and should have been caught by supervisors.

Just prior to a launch on 967, tank 5 indication was at zero. The discrepancy was found to be two wires which had not been re-connected after a fuel probe change. During another launch of 967, the alternate brakes failed to work. The mission was canceled because no one was proficient enough to bleed the brake system with engines running. With an experienced technician, this procedure would have taken only about twenty minutes.

And this oneís my favorite. This doesn't necessarily show a lack of experience, but more a lack of care, pride, and supervision. I drove out to Site 2 one weekend, where LM was hard at work performing fuel system checkouts on 967. They were in the process of transferring fuel from tank 1 to tank 6. First, let me explain this process. When transferring fuel from forward tanks to aft tanks, you must take care not to tip the aircraft on itís tail. This is accomplished by watching the CG indicator in the cockpit, shifting fuel loads in other tanks, and adjusting landing gear struts appropriately. Power is applied to the aircraft, boost pump pressures are used to move the fuel, and the person in the cockpit is in direct contact with the supervisor on the ground through communications gear. The supervisor is in charge of the operation at all times. Ok, knowing that, here's what I saw. As I was pulling up, the first thing I noticed was fuel gushing out onto the ground coming from a defective tank 1 boost pump. Then I noticed how high the nose of the aircraft was. When I got to the aircraft, I saw three of the four wheels of the crew entrance stand off the ground, and it was literally hanging from the nose of the aircraft. I looked at the mechanic in the cockpit, and he had his headset off, and eyes closed. I then looked for the supervisor, and found her sitting on the other side of the air conditioner, her headset off, smoking a cigarette, and completely out of view of the aircraft. Just as I was about to completely lose my cool, the Crew Chief drove up and went ballistic on them, and quickly rectified the situation.

You might begin to ask where LMs QA is at this point. First, you need to understand LMs view of what a QA Inspector is. Basically, it's anyone they think is worthy. Usually it is someone who's been around for a while, but prior knowledge of a particular aircraft is not a requirement. Their Chief Inspector, Floyd Jones, is probably one of the best around, and has a ton of experience on the SR-71. He has four inspectors working for him, which he doesn't necessarily choose. Two of these four had worked the SR-71 before. The other two were basically in training. It's just the way things are done, and thereís nothing we could do to change it. In essence, the LM QA Inspector may or may not have specific knowledge of the task being performed, but is required to inspect it. Iíve heard that most of the civilian community is ran in this fashion, and that's a scary thought. Where aircraft are concerned, experience is one of the most important factors in keeping them safely flying!

Now I'd like to talk about LMs response to these incidents. As you can probably tell from some of the previously mentioned events, we wrote many Quality Deficiency Reports (QDRs). This is the official paperwork we fill out to notify the contractor that problems exist, and that AF standards are not being met. We state all the facts, our recommendations for corrective action, and require a written response within a set amount of days. In all such cases, we stressed the need for training, and more supervisory involvement. Every single response we received showed disciplinary action taken, but no mention of how they would prevent it in the future. People even got fired over some of these. That was not our intention. We just wanted the problems addressed, and prevented in the future. We fully realized that we could not tell the contractor how to treat their own people, but had hoped they would show some genuine concern. That wasn't to be the case.

Hopefully by now, you get a general feel for the experience shortages I encountered. All the preceding examples happened prior to 1996 when the program was very young, and were completely understandable, if not expected. Although not much real training was ever conducted, they learned through experience, and are fast becoming a viable work force.

Introduction   Acronyms & Abbreviations   Pre-Reactivation Efforts   The Reactivation   The Blackbird Takes to the Sky   Maintenance & Personnel   Logistics   War Stories   Conclusion   My Biography (Christopher Bennett)

© Christopher W. Bennett

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