Challenge ends mechanic's long career at Hill AFB
Updated: 01/25/2010 09:50:07 AM MST
By Matthew D. LaPlante
The Salt Lake Tribune
Air Force ┬╗ Phantom malfunction likely in jet's wiring eludes veteran of 44 years.
or Rick Hurtado, it was one final challenge.
After 44 years in the Air Force, Hurtado was ready to retire. But first, the master mechanic's supervisors asked him to look at a F-16 fighter jet that was alerting its pilots to a dangerous malfunction.
The problem was first noticed in 2006 in the skies over Europe, where aircraft 90-0419 was a part of the 23rd Fighter Squadron -- the Fighting Hawks of Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany.
"Warning. Warning. Warning," the jet's computer-simulated voice -- known not so affectionately as "Bitching Betty" -- alerted her pilot.
A code in the aircraft's display panel indicated that the jet was having engine problems. But the alert persisted even after Air Force maintainers switched out the aircraft's powerful F100 turbofan engine. The problem was a phantom, they concluded -- likely caused by a problem somewhere in the jet's wiring.
Still, in a single-engine aircraft, that warning could not be ignored. The $19 million jet fighter was grounded over a wiring problem that might cost a few hundreds dollars to fix -- if only someone could figure out where the problem was coming from.
The aircraft was broken down, packed into crates, and shipped to Hill Air Force Base in Utah.
That's where Hurtado first saw her.
The agile F-16 Fighting Falcon runs just 50 feet from nose to tail. But under its aluminum alloy skin are miles and miles of twisted and bundled wiring.
"The problem could be anywhere," said Greg Hoffman, Hill's maintenance director. "It was going to be a great challenge."
Hoffman knew 419's potential. He had first met that jet while serving with the 23rd years earlier in Germany. "I'd never had any problems with that jet," he said. "It was a good bird. And if there was a guy in the world that could get her back in the air, it was Rick Hurtado."
Day by day, wire by wire, Hurtado and his team of mechanics sifted through 419's innards. "It was more a process of elimination than anything," he said.
At one point in 2009, the team was convinced it had solved the problem. But as a test pilot pulled the aircraft out of a touch-and-go on Hill's long runway, Betty returned.
"Warning. Warning. Warning," she cried.
Hurtado went back to work. Often, the 61-year-old mechanic would draw up a wiring diagram and bring it home to study.
"I'd sit down there in my little office in my basement and study the drawings," he said.
Sometimes he fell asleep hunched over the papers at his desk.
Hurtado believes he was weeks away from solving the puzzle when word came from the Air Force's F-16 program office to stand down. A Lockheed Martin facility in Fort Worth needed a few airframes to conduct structural fatigue testing -- and 419 was a good candidate.
"The idea is to figure out, as we fly these airplanes longer and longer, what might fail on them structurally," Hoffman explained.
In that way, he said, the sacrifice of 419 might help other maintainers keep hundreds of jets in the air for years to come.
But that didn't make it easy to break the news to Hurtado.
"He was really disappointed," Hoffman said. "He felt like he was right on the cusp of solving this riddle. And I believe him."
Hurtado said it was difficult to accept the order.
"It was a real bitter pill," he said. "I've never failed to repair a broken aircraft. But on this one I just ran out of time."
In a career that began during the Vietnam War, Hurtado said that not being able to fix 419 "was my only real disappointment."
"I was hoping to see her fly again," said Hurtado, who retired in December. "But sometimes, I guess, you've just got to let things go."