© Copywrite 2019, Jeff McCarley
How to become a legend 101
The flight line of an air station is a very busy place. And by flight line, I mainly mean a strip of thoroughfare between the hangers and the aircraft staging area. There entails parallel and perpendicular comings and goings by everything from dumbass Marines stomping worn heels into the non-skid; any manner of Ground Support Equipment (GSE), big and small; white Government Owned Vehicles in all sorts of goofy-looking varieties; and even entire aircraft (birds) that are being pushed or pulled by more GSE into or out of an ancient hanger. All of this congestion, which we refer to as a gaggle-fuck, is quite dangerous at times. So not only do Marines have to look out for other Marines, but we also have to look out for the Commandant’s equipment, too, of course.
My flight line was the gem of the Corps – Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona. Well, to be specific, I was fifty-one Alpha (51A), Airframes, Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 13, Marine Aircraft Group 13, 3rd Marine Air Wing. The trick is to use Marine as many times as possible to insure that people know you’re talking about Marines. It really does roll off of the tongue, though. Try it – fifty-one Alpha, Airframes, MALS-13, MAG-13, 3rd MAW, with 51A being my work center.
I was a sheet metal smith and performed advanced composite material repairs and fabrication. I know, who gives a shit, right? All that matters is that I was a part of the second level up in maintenance. Marines at the O-level (squadron) were always breaking shit, so they sent it to us at the I-level, then we would perform severely under budgeted magic for Uncle Sam. Since the pilots were also Marines, and the birds were also Marines, they were always breaking shit and sending it up to us.
The stretch of flight line outside of the Airframes building wasn’t too busy most of the time because the four AV-8B Harrier squadrons were at the other end – VMA-214 Blacksheep, VMA-311 Tomcats, VMA 513 Flying Nightmares, and VMA 211 Avengers. In order to make up for an inordinately quiet and peaceful strip of flight line, The Corps’ nearly flawless wisdom would do things like temporarily assign a training squadron of Hueys to the visitor’s hanger next to Airframes, but park the entire squadron near the Airframes building and mobile deployment vans. Not in front of their own hanger, two hundred yards from us, like the rest of the Marine Corps. If you’ve never watched a brand new pilot taxi a helicopter with skids (no wheels) into position, then I can really only compare it to a monkey trying to fuck a football.
When high velocity rotors, like those on a helicopter, hit something – say re-enforced concrete, for example, or a parked helicopter – those rotors tend to explode. Marine Corps aircraft always park in formation (a squarish grid). The closest edge of that formation was always about way-too-close-to-me yards from the Airframes hyd shop (hydraulics shop) vans. The vans were really just fancy shipping containers like you see on cargo ships and trains. Staged near the Airframes building, they were designed to be dropped into the middle of nowhere and to be set up quick and easy as maintenance buildings. Very light. I wouldn’t trust those flimsy things to stop a bean bag and there were Marines inside pretending to work.
In a cubby between vans, facing the flight line, us Non NCOs and Corporals would smoke. Non NCO is a double negative that denotes nobody-ness in the so labeled, and a Corporal’s only true rank is to answer for the fuck-ups of the afore mentioned nobodies. We tended to collect in dark corners to avoid any number of unwanted things. Usually we smoked and sometimes we even smoked just outside the yellow line. The yellow line was the outside edge of the flight line and the red line parallel to it was the official start of the fight line, the thoroughfare of chaos I mentioned earlier. There was no smoking on the flight line, so we made sure not to touch the yellow line. Rules are orders, after all.
So there we would sit, kneel, or stand and tensely watch these horribly new Huey pilots pitch and yaw, tip front to back, and side to side, as they struggled desperately to fly straight in any fashion, and at altitudes as low as the ground. High velocity bomb material whizzed by the pavement, mocking every stander-by smoking instead of working. I’ve seen a tail rotor come as close as two feet from hitting the ground and becoming an all-night repair for someone. Like I said before: pilots are Marines, too.
Despite such perils, we still finished our cigarettes. Then most of us threw the butts in the general direction of the butt-can, but not into it. That seemed to be Standard Operating Procedure Marine Corps wide.
Also, like I said before, my stretch of flight line was pretty quiet, especially on the night shift. Us Non NCOs loved night crew because all of the brass and rockers up front were gone during our shift. Not only does that translate to a three-quarter reduction in Marine Corps day-to-day bullshit, but it comes with a low likelihood of being voluntarily told to do some shit-detail.
There was a Staff Sergeant at Airframes, SSGT Richard, who would look at one Marine and bark an order with another Marine’s name, then later threaten to write-up a third Marine for not following that very same order. He led from the front, you see, so he wasn’t so good at matching up names and faces. He wasn’t so good with whether he was in your direct chain of command or not, either. He even came into the shop early one Sunday morning while we finished up a Priority-One repair. SSGT Richard asked us where everyone was and we told him that it was Sunday morning. As he walked off, he still looked confused and unconvinced.
It required cunning and good instincts to navigate through the day shift duty roster without being assigned to unfuck a fucked-up shitter or clean up the smoke pit because the Sergeant Major saw it. And every Marine is a janitor because cleanliness is next to idleness. So yeah, night crew was great. Low supervision.
Most of a structural mechanic’s responsibilities were fulfilled in our shop, separate from the aircraft. We broke our gear in private. There were jobs that we had to perform on the bird directly, however. Heavy hardware was a must with any job and we had to lug that gear to the opposite side of the flight line. It was not permitted in POVs, however. We AirWingers didn’t lug our heavy gear around like ground pounders and bullet catchers, though. No way. We had GSE. For that purpose, we had the Taylor Dunn. And everyone loved the Taylor Dunn.
That GOVy, our brilliant if not pint-sized piece of GSE, was a white, blocky, miniature truck made from sheet metal, and was propelled by the little gas-powered engine that would. This armored golf cart hit twelve miles-per-hour downhill with the wind on its back and turned corners like a skateboard. But given the time, that thing would get any load up to ten miles per hour. We took no man’s word for anything. The Taylor Dunn would scream and growl all the way to the opposite end of the flight line, then it would scream and growl all the way back to MALS-13 Airframes. And sometimes, like any Marine, the Taylor Dunn would leave a visible and fowl smelling odor behind. But I think that he only did that when we drove by all the squadrons, by the Marines that would routinely fuck-up our birds.
One horrible evening, like most others, Lance Corporal (LCPL) Passenger and I were assigned to replace a pylon bearing, which has to be done directly on the wing. LCPL Passenger was a great friend and was at least present at the occurrence of a number of my stories. But in this case, it was me and him because he was a Certified Deficiency Inspector and I was present and accounted for. We loaded the gear onto the Taylor Dunn’s flat bed, secured only by wood gates on each side to bounce off of, and we putted off, me at the helm. Taylor Dunn was not the most comfortable ride, as he was small. The front end was just a sheet of steel and it loomed inches from the knees; the seat was straight up and down, and it vibrated like a Harrier. Oh, and of course, driver and passenger practically sat in each other’s laps. The job went smoothly, I suppose, because I don’t even remember which squadron it was for and I’m actually assuming that it was a bearing.
Upon returning, I zoomed along the yellow smoke line and by the nearly empty butt-can, then executed a starboard (right) turn onto the throughway that ran between the hyd shop vans and the Airframes building. With the MALS-13 GSE maintenance building directly ahead, I headed for the Taylor Dunn’s parking spot inside of an alcove in the cinderblock building that enclosed 51A. The opening was about ten or twelve Taylor Dunns wide with doors everywhere. The hazmat locker to the left, the big double doors and crane ahead and left, the normal door next to that, two soda machines in the right corner, then, on the right wall, parallel to the parking spot, the door that lead directly into the 51A locker room.
Although there was plenty of space in this alcove, I was always worried that I was gonna be run down by the Taylor Dunn when I stepped through the door from the locker room. We parked it five feet from the door, in front of the vending machines.
I turned in so that I was mostly straightened out by the time I went under cover of the alcove. As I was coasting into position and I depressed the brake to ease to a stop, but my foot slipped off of the right edge of the highly polished brake pedal, and the right edge of that same boot sole floored the gas briefly before the pedal popped back up, trapping my foot between the gas and the brake. I tried to pull my foot out to stomp on the brake, but the next thing I remember is looking at a white circle in the windshield, confused, and LCpl Passenger holding his knee, grimacing in pain.
CPL Answers and LCpl Chillin’ ran through the regular door near the big double doors. I’ve still never seen eyes so wide as they stared at the carnage. The Taylor Dunn absolutely crushed the bottom of the left vending machine’s door and sat about halfway inside; it had broken the steel bolts that held the three-quarter inch steel brackets to the concrete, anchoring the machine in place, and it crumpled the metal on the machine’s back where it was pushed into the cinderblock window sill.
I suffered a minor cut to my forehead and LCpl Passenger rammed his knee into the front wall of the Taylor Dunn. CPL Answers and LCpl Chillin’ were sitting in the office on the opposite side of the wall when I rammed the machine like a Roman battle ship. They reported the impact as sounding like “a bomb went off”.
I caught a lot of hell over that, but the only thing I actually did wrong was drive the Taylor Dunn without the proper GSE license for that particular piece of equipment. The rest was just my brand of luck.
The civilian’s insurance covered all damages to the vending machine and the Taylor Dunn only needed a new windshield. I heard scuttlebutt later on that made me anything from blind drunk to trying to get out of the Corps. But it was just a stupid accident.
For official disciplinary action, LCpl Passenger and I were written up in our Maintenance Logs for misuse and abuse of GSE equipment, and we were made to lead a training for Airframes on the safe and proper use of GSE equipment. I read aloud – Airframes laughed; LCpl Passenger read – I tried not to laugh. Not hard enough, apparently, because I was issued a standard “You better…” ass chewing by SSGT Richard. But he got my name right, every time.
It was then that I knew that I was a legend, for even SSGT Richard knew exactly who I was. Oorah!