Fightertown fights frigid weather

27 Feb 2014 | Cpl. Timothy Norris

Two major cold fronts disrupted the daily lives of people from the Midwest to the Lowcountry recently. Roads, businesses, schools, and even Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort were closed or operated on essential-only personnel in response to the unusual weather.

The weather, however, wouldn’t have stopped the Marines of the Air Station from getting their F/A-18 Hornets into the sky if needed.

"It’s a pretty strong jet so it doesn’t take much," said Cpl. Michael Osteen, a Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 122 F/A-18 mechanic. "Most of the setup is the same."

The cold weather mostly affects the jet once temperatures drop below freezing. It changes the pressurized systems in the jet and causes a short delay in preparing for take-off.

If the maintainers are on the ball, the delay doesn’t even become a factor.

"We’re pretty good about getting the jets out when they need to be," Osteen said. "We take cold weather into consideration along with everything else we do. A lot of the time we can get them ready so fast that by the time the pilot gets out to the jet, the only thing they are waiting on is clearance from the air traffic control tower for takeoff."

The cold weather effects taken into consideration include adjusting pressurized systems, de-icing the engine, an automatic feature built into the jet, and windmilling the engine to warm up the systems. Windmilling is a process where the turbine is spinning but there is no combustion in the engine.

"Depending on the temperature, the pressure systems will fluctuate," said Dawson Midgett, a VMFA-122 airframe mechanic from Daytona, Fla. "If it is hot and the air is dry we have almost no problems with the jets. If the air is cold and humid like Beaufort, the jets have a harder time flying. More things can go wrong with temperature changes."

One of the most obvious effects is slow but affects the entire jet.

"We’ve gone out a lot of mornings after a cold night to service the jets and we can tell the pressure is out of whack," Midgett said. "The main landing struts are really affected by that, because the jet won’t be level, or if the gauges or measurement systems are off they have to be serviced."

The landing systems and instruments are essential for a safe flight, and maintaining a multi-million dollar aircraft in the cold can be more difficult.

"Finger dexterity goes out the window," Osteen said, regarding how difficult it can be to manage delicate systems in the cold.

Even with the bundle of cold weather gear, cold hands, and plethora of systems affected by the cold weather, Osteen said the cold is no match for getting the Hornet in the air.

"It’s all in the training," he said. "We get done what needs to be done."