RAFairman's Blog

An RAF Airman's Blog

A WHOLE lot of Bottle…

It’s a fact that we all, at some stage, screw up.

And I am by no means an exception. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I’ve done it a fair few times – and in spades.

Some of them I’d rather not go into. One of then I can’t (it involves a LOT of alcohol, and drinking isn’t clever kiddies. Not clever at all) but this one came to me earlier tonight.

Again, it was years ago, when I was a fairly young and impressionable airman, who was misguided and just wanted to be helpful, but it’s often a fact that when you are trying to be the most helpful that things go wrong.

It was very early in the morning. Certainly before light, and I was part of the “Swing shift’.  This was a very small shift of one corporal and four juniors who went in before the main day shift to service the aircraft and get them ready for the next days flying. Sort of the dawn wake up for the aircraft if you will – we’d carry out a full After Flight servicing and then carry out a full Before Flight servicing to make sure that all the aircrafts oils, pressure, fuels and liquids were correctly charged up, as well as to check the main fabric of the aircraft to ensure there were no problems with it before it went flying.

Sometimes given the size and complexity of the aircraft one person may miss a small thing like a rivet missing and a second different pair of eyes would be able to spot it.

Anyway, this night, we were split into two teams of two and the Cpl would be wandering between our locations helping us out as required, supervising and raising the appropriate paperwork…and we started working our way through the HAS’s (Hardened Aircraft Shelters) where the Tornado F3’s were housed. We’d already carried out 3-4 servicings each and so we were approaching the end, given that the squadron only, at best, had 8-9 aircraft fully serviceable out of a total of 11-12 jets.

My team got to HAS 3, and started on our last jet and I was doing Man B – the “downstairs” of the jet – which had the most to do, checking the most of the fuselage as well as checking the most pressures and oils.  As I did so I found that the left hand main-wheel was under pressure. For the life of me, as I sit here and type, I can’t remember what that pressure should be but it was only just under pressure. On the line. Technically I could have left it, and it would have been legal to fly, and the next person doing the “Turnround” servicing between the next flights later in the day would have had to have topped it up.

But it would be busy during the day. I reasoned that if I topped it up then it would help out the day shift by easing their workload a little. I’d top it up. Give it a blast to make sure it’d be over the minimum pressure, but under the maximum pressure allowed and so it’d be fine for the day.

Now the principle for topping up an aircraft tyre is essentially the same as for if you notice your car tyre pressure is low. You connect a hose and pump some air in. The only difference for a jet’s tyre is that the air is replaced by Nitrogen and the pressure of a damn-sight more.

Also as the aircraft are a lot more difficult to move around on the ground – instead of taking the jet to the “air pump” the nitrogen is brought to the jet.  This happens in the form of a trolley – with four gas bottles strapped to it towed around by a Landrover. The bottles themselves are about 6-7 foot long, BIG things, with a LOT of gas in at a really high pressure and they are arranged horizontally with some pipe-work bringing the gas to a regulator valve on the control panel which a hose was connected up to.  The hose is obviously then connected to the aircraft tyre and the regulator valve opened up and the nitrogen inflates the tyre. A gauge reads off what the tyre pressure is and after a moment or two the job’s a goodun and you’re finished.

It’s a bit of a palaver, but it has to be done, and my reasoning was that if I left it, then the day shift would have to go through all that when they were really busy.

So I hopped into the Landy and drove the “Bottle compound”. I reversed up to a set of Nitrogen bottles and walked around to connect it up. I gave the bottle trolley a bit of a tug and it rolled forward.  Towing hooks in the military are not the same as you might find on the back of an estate that is going to tow a caravan. Landrovers in the military have a “NATO Towing Pintle”.  This is an odd thing that is difficult to describe, but it is basically a circular device that opens, almost like a padlock, to allow the towing eye to be placed onto. The upper part of the Pintle is then lowered, and grasps by a small magnet, but is then secured in place by a split pin that goes through the pintle, keeping the top stuck to the bottom, preventing accidental opening.

In the case of MY Landover, I connected it up and then noticed, as I slid the pin through that it was very loose. “I’ll have to snag that when I finish,” I thought.

I ran round and jumped back into the driver’s seat and pulled away.

Now. This is where it all goes wrong. I MAY have gone a little bit faster than I should have. I may have driven over the very large taxi-way lights that stick up out of the roads, almost like the dome of a Darlek’s head. Ok. I did do. I farted about. Enjoying the bump, bump. bump of the Landy and the trolley over the lights as I drove back to the HAS.

And when I got the the HAS, my mate had already started opening the big main doors for me to bring the trolley inside. It was forbidden to drive a trolley into a HAS, and anyway it was easier to drive round in front of the doors park up and push the trolley in, and then pull it back out once it was finished with, instead of driving into the HAS and trying to manoeuvre it about.

So I drove round the apron (or pan) as we called it in front of the HAS in a very wide arc. I put some left-hand down on the Landy’s steering wheel and I started to pull round. There was a bit of a jolt as I went over another taxi-light and then the Landy jumped forward slightly. It suddenly felt…lighter.

That’s ‘cos it was. Things started to happen in slow motion. I looked out to my right and saw the nitrogen trolley rolling along. Heading towards the HAS doors. It was no longer connected to the Landrover. Like a motorbike and sidecar from a Wallace and Grommit cartoon we had separated and were going in totally different directions. I was ok, heading in a safe way, and more importantly with brakes…the trolley, with four full bottles of nitrogen inside was heading, totally out of control, towards a HAS door made of re-inforced concrete and steel. Designed to withstand a blast of a Russian bomb. It was about 30 tons of massive engineering.

And the trolley made no sign of slowing at all. As it got closer my mate saw it heading towards the door and ran. It wasn’t heading towards him, but if it hit the doors…

I hit the Landy’s brakes and decided the only safe thing to do was duck down behind the dash.

What seemed like a million years later – but was probably only a couple of seconds – there was a huge….CLANG. The trolley hit the door’s steel framework. This framework was angled to ensure that the blast of an explosion was directed away and up, and fortunately this framework also meant that the trolley was directed up and away from the floor, thus taking the impact out of the situation. The front wheel of the trolley impaled itself over the bottom of the steel runners and came to a halt.

Unfortunately the momentum of the bottles inside the trolley didn’t stop THEM from moving and each one of the bottles must have jumped forward by about a good 6-7 inches.  Indeed the only thing that stopped them flying out of the trolley was the pipe-work that connected them to the regulator at the back-end of the trolley.

We went to investigate – and we discovered just how ‘lucky’ I had been. If the trolley had been going slightly faster when it had hit, the momentum had have been greater and the bottles would have been shot out of the trolley like a slingshot stone. They’d have been blasted out by the pressure of the pipe-work rupturing and then would have literally taken off down through the HAS site towards the open doors of HAS 1, where the other team was working. The consequences of this would have been terrible. Just imagine what a coke can is like if you drop it and the can is pierced. Now think of what the damage a high pressure bottle could have done…

What to do now? We…I…could have put the trolley back in the compound and got a new set of bottles and then the next person finding them the next day would have found them damaged. I could have done that…

But I didn’t. I couldn’t have lived with it. There’d have been all manner of crap being thrown about if we’d have tried to hide the damage…so I simple returned the trolley – parked it up in the unserviceable area and put a notice on it.  It wasn’t easy to get back to the compound as it was pretty well mangled. The towing arm was bent and a tyre was flat. Another wheel was buckled and the bottles of course had caused the pipes to be all bent and pulled out of shape.

And then I waited for the Day Shift to come in. Standing outside the Squadron Warrant Officers door waiting for him, ready to explain myself.

I was told I’d done the right thing. I’d had the integrity to own up. But I had still driven a vehicle that itself was unserviceable – with the pin being lose – all the bumping and bouncing had made the loose pin fall out. I should have driven back and replaced the pin before towing the bottles, but I hadn’t. I had also driven too fast and had dicked about a bit. I was at fault. I was charged with driving an un-serviceable Landrover, and was fined £120.

You might think this was harsh. I had after all owned up…and done the right thing. But, I never thought that. Never. I had screwed around, and something really bad had happened.

BUT, and it’s a big but in capitals, with italics in bold, and would have flashing lights around it if I could figure out how to do that…it could have been much, much, MUCH (with the same flashy lights) worse. Those bottles could have whooshed off that trolley after the impact. They could have jetted down through the HAS site at about 4am towards another HAS with an aircraft inside it. Which had a full fuel load. And three people working inside it…

So I was lucky. I consider that I got off lightly. And I learnt several things that night…some very important lessons…

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One thought on “A WHOLE lot of Bottle…

  1. As the saying goes: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

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