George AFB, California, 1979. I was the Dedicated Crew Chief for the F-4G 69-0238 “Super Chicken”. I was gassing up for the afternoon go when things went horribly wrong.
The R-9 fuel truck stopped pumping and I checked the external tanks to see if they were full. They weren’t. I told the truck driver to continue fueling at 25 psi instead of the regular 45 psi. I figured that we could add a few more gallons and I’d talk the crew into taking it. I went to the back of the wing to see if the tank vents were venting air. They were. I was back of the right wing when I heard a splash. That usually meant that fuel had come out of the vent. Not much. We’d usually catch it in a bucket.
I bent over to see fuel splashing on the ground. I told the truck driver to shut it down and he just stood there staring. I went around the nose and grabbed my bucket. When I faced the jet I saw that fuel was pouring from the tank seam. I put the bucket under the stream and it ripped the bucket from my hand.
At this point I woke up.
Terry Townsend was my fire guard and was by the single point refueling nozzle. I dropped the deadman switch and ordered him to close the valve. He did, and the hose dropped to the ground. It was still full of fuel. I then ordered the fuel truck driver to “GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!” He drove the truck away dragging the hose.
The jet was set up for the refuel and all the fuel transfer valves were open. 17,000 lbs of fuel were pouring out. I had to close the valves, but that meant turning the battery power on. I climbed the ladder saying a prayer. I threw the switch and did not disappear in a fireball. Good. Thanks God.
By the time I got down from the ladder, the first fire truck had showed up and was hosing the ground with water. A second truck showed up and started to spray foam. At this time a Security Policeman told me I had to evacuate the area. I told him it was my jet and I wasn’t going anywhere.
I was then escorted out of the area at gunpoint.
I was about 100 yards away when the Brass showed up. The Wing Safety Officer was screaming at my Maintenance Officer. The Wing King then showed up and more words were exchanged. My MO pointed at me and motioned me to come over. I told the SP, “Shoot me” and went in. About 370 gallons of jet fuel was now on the ramp. The Fire Department had emptied the water pumper and two foam pumpers. They then got the truck that was broken and couldn’t pump out. Syphoned the foam into a good pumper and expended that load too. The puddle went all the way to Able row and was a little bigger than a football field.
As I walked up the Wing King said to Wing Safety, “I want you to treat this investigation as if we just burned every jet on the ramp.”
I spent a week having Quality Assurance watch me go through the motions of a refuel.
“What step are you on?”
“What step are you on?”
It was decided that the other tanks had to be removed and by the book. Which was never done by the book. No one ever pressurized the tank with a High PAC and fuel shop was suggesting that fuel line needed to be cut. LtCol “Goose” Gowell was appointed as Board President and he was getting frustrated.
“Walt, I see you guys change tanks all the time. How do you really do it?”
“We defuel the internals then run the jet and transfer the tank up into the internals.”
“Can you run it?”
“Okay. Set it up. I’ll be right back.”
I was just de-fueling when he came back carrying his helmet bag.
“I’m going to run it”, he said. I told him to back out of the area while we finish de-fueling.
Gowell climbed in and put his helmet on. “Now what?’, he said on the intercom.
“Switch to the Maintenance frequency and request permission for a ground maintenance run.” He got a rather bored maintenance controlled on the horn who said,
Gowell shrugs his shoulders. I say, “Baker 56”.
“Man number for the tubes and screens?”
I say, “00767”
“Man number of the person running the jet?”
Gowell shrugs at me. I shrug back.
“This is Colonel Gowell, I’ll be running the jet.”
“Yes sir. Approved. Call us back when you’re done…………sir.”
QA vs WING SAFETY
There were two camps in the investigation. Wing Safety wanted to burn me and send me to jail. Quality Assurance thought it might be something else. The tank had burst at the seam. Literally and some bolts recovered were stretched to twice their length. About 30 bolts hold the seam together. The seams always leaked a little and tanks were sent to the tank farm to be “repaired”. The QA went around with a torque wrench and checked hundreds of bolts on dozens of tanks. He found two (2) torqued correctly.
All the others were over torqued. That was because when a leaky tank got to the tank farm, the folks there would crank down on it until it stopped leaking. Not the brightest crayons in the box.
I was cleared of any wrong doing.