LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – The enourmous black cable was filthy from being dragged across concrete through oil, jet fuel and grease.
Staff Sgt. Mikela Kleinhans, 433rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Air Reserve Technician, lugged the heavy cable from the “dash 86” generator to the belly of a C-5A Galaxy cargo aircraft. She plugged it into the external power receptacle under the plane to power the aircraft’s various systems without running the engines.
She then fired up the generator, which growled to life with a belch of heavy diesel smoke. Kleinhans climbed into the aircraft through the port-side door and up the stairs to the flight deck where she turned on the aircraft’s electrical and environmental systems.
With the flick of a few switches on the flight deck, the aircraft came to life with glowing dials and lights as cool air rushed into circulation in the hot interior of the Vietnam-era aircraft.
Kleinhans said it is always much hotter or much colder up there in the aircraft than outside, as she cranked open the windows, before leaving the flight deck and heading toward a door in the cargo area.
She descended the narrow, wobbling steps to the sun-baked concrete of the flightline and walked to the right, past the nose of the aircraft, to the massive wheels of the landing gear under the center of the plane. With her right hand on a waist-high tire, she reached down with her left hand into the brake assembly of the bogey to inspect the small workings. She found a minor problem and corrected it with a turn of her wrist.
“This airplane is filthy,” she said with a smile as she retracted her hand from the axle of the aircraft’s landing gear, covered in black grease.
But the dirt is all part of her job.
“I’m a C-5A crew chief, which is basically an aircraft mechanic. I maintain the C-5A to keep it mission capable,” Kleinhans said.
Inspecting and repairing brakes is only one of many jobs she performs to keep the C-5As in mission-ready status. A C-5A typically has more than 103 miles of electrical wire, four miles of hydraulic tubing and five miles of control cables. A C-5A is a huge aircraft full of small spaces and little parts. Kleinhans has to know it all very well.
She said her job involves inspecting, servicing and troubleshooting parts and systems, changing tires, refueling, towing and management of maintenance activities on the aircraft to which she’s assigned for the day.
Kleinhans wasn’t always a Reservist or a C-5A crew chief.
She said she spent time working in masonry and construction after separating from active duty service, before enlisting in the Air Force reserve.
She said she separated from the Air Force after two years of active-duty service as an armament systems apprentice on the F-15s at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. After a three-year break, she wanted to get back into the Air Force and get her hands aircraft-dirty again.
“I like to get my hands dirty,” Kleinhans said. “I missed working with the aircraft.”
Kleinhans enlisted in the Air Force Reserve. She could not go back on active duty because she is a single mother, she said.
“I’m so glad it worked out that way,” Kleinhans said . “I love that I get to stay in one place and have a job on the civilian side.”
Kleinhans said a C-5A crew chief relies on a lot more help from other crew members since the aircraft is so big; whereas an F-15 crew chief relies less on a large crew. She said she wanted the job after seeing what they did at Eglin AFB, acknowledging the job is different for different airframes.
The pace on a C-5A is quite a bit slower than it is with F-15s, Kleinhans said.
On fighters, there’s only the jet, a pilot and ammunition to worry about. With the C-5A, you have all that plus cargo and passengers and an aircraft twenty times larger. Also, a C-5A crew chief gets to travel to many different locations with the aircraft. A C-5A doesn’t usually take a mission without taking two maintainers with it.
C-5A crew chiefs, just like C-5s, travel all over the world.
She said she flew to Oregon, Kentucky, Indiana, Georgia, Delaware, Maine, Hawaii, Germany, Korea and Japan, performing routine maintenance and repairs in flight and on the ground as part of the job.
Kleinhans said one of her favorite things is to look out the window during the flight and see the engine working. She said every time she walks past a window, she takes a peek out to stare at the engine for a moment.
“Nothing is as satisfying as launching an aircraft that you helped fix,” Kleinhans said. “I absolutely love my job.”