We at FighterSweep understand what it’s like to jump through all the hoops necessary to get an anniversary paint scheme approved for a U.S. Air Force aircraft. So when we learned the Oregon Air National Guard’s 173rd Fighter Wing was embarking on a similar task, we knew it would probably be a difficult sell to senior leadership–but also the payoff would be so worth it.
Back in November, Colonel Jeff “Sled” Smith–the newly-appointed 173rd Fighter Wing Commander in Klamath Falls–was in charge of the wing’s Maintenance Group. With the Oregon ANG’s 75th Anniversary on the horizon, he asked around his shop to see if anyone had ideas on how to best commemorate the milestone one of the wing’s F-15 Eagles.
Master Sergeant Paul Allen, the First Sergeant in the 173rd Maintenance Squadron, is no stranger to that sort of request. In 2006, he helped the Colorado Air National Guard celebrate their 50th Anniversary with a spectacular throwback “Minutemen” paint job on one of the 140th Wing’s Vipers. Since the climate has changed quite a bit in the U.S. Air Force, the Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard components over the last ten years, Allen submitted a small, conservative design that could go on the vertical tails of an Eaglejet.
Smith looked at the design and told Allen, “the 75th only happens once, so you can go big on this one.”
Given a carte blanche maneuvering envelope, Allen then set to work and created plans for a tip-to-tail scheme unlike anything else ever seen on an F-15. The design itself was ambitious, and the stated timeline for completion was even more so. Allen shared his thoughts with other colleagues at different paint shops, hoping to get a sanity check on his ideas. Instead, what he got was those other units saying, “hey, your design just isn’t that realistic…-”
The project at that point was just a radical design–all Mach and no solid vector. What components were needed; how much paint versus how much wrap; how a team of volunteers would mesh to get it done; and, most importantly, how it was all going to be funded were questions whose answers were still beyond visual range. Even more daunting was the approval process required for the scheme to even be applied.
Brigadier General Kirk Pierce, then-Commander of the 173rd Fighter Wing, handled a majority of the heavy-lifting on the approval end of the undertaking. As the saying goes, “you can get a thousand people to say no, but all it takes is for one person to say yes.”
Initial requests for were denied, but Pierce kept escalating the request and its justification. The wing’s proposal ended up with the HAF Staff–Headquarters Air Force, and subsequently got bumped over to the National Guard Bureau. It was there Pierce received a “yes,” and the ever-important signature from a particular general officer.
Given the go-ahead, Allen and his team got to work.
The jet selected for the paint was 79-041, as 1941 was the year the Oregon Air National Guard came into being. Once that tail was selected, the jet was pulled out of service and rolled down to the corrosion facility/paint barn right there at Kingsley Field. All of the work–the design and application of the scheme, was to be done at home.
Initially, all of the major pieces fell into place fairly seamlessly. Stencils were done on a brand-new printer and looked sharp, specialty automotive paint arrived–and even in the correct quantities! The aircraft’s surfaces were sanded and prepped, sensitive and non-essential surfaces were masked, and all was in order to begin, so begin they did.
It was at that point when disaster struck and nearly derailed the entire project…
Allen remembers laying a stencil down on the first coat of black paint on the jet’s upper surfaces, and when he lifted the stencil to remove it, a huge section of paint came right off with the stencil. An examination revealed although the paint had dried correctly, it completely failed to adhere to the fuselage.
“I remember these eight guys looking at me and I didn’t know what to do,” Allen said. “I actually felt a little sick–like I might pass out.”
Six gallons of the expensive black automotive paint had been applied, and all of it was going to have to come off the jet. That part would take weeks, the surfaces would have to be re-sanded, and they’d essentially be starting over. The consensus at that point was bleak, the project was most-likely dead with no real solution on how to salvage it.
Allen dug his heels in, flatly refusing to be defeated. A major setback? Absolutely. Death stroke to the project? No way. Instead of focusing on the problem, the team sprang into problem-solving mode. Phone calls were made to the paint vendor, and the team at Kingsley received a very intimate understanding of the science involved.
The crew received a very detailed picture of how temperature variations fluctuations in humidity inside the paint booth could affect the application and adherence of the paint to the surfaces. The study of the environment revealed significant variants in the temperature inside the building, attributable to uncontrolled factors: constantly needing to open and close doors to keep the oxygen levels safe for the crew, as well as naturally-occurring temperature variations of more than twenty degrees. At one point, the crew was walking around with laser thermometers, testing the temperature in every corner of their work space.
An added complication was the fact the heat in the facility was turned off when no one was around. Makes sense, right? Well, yes–for every other structure on base; however, in the given scenario, the maximum amount of fluctuation in temperature which would allow the paint to cure correctly was only ten degrees.
The biggest fight was getting past the delamination process. Once the initial application was removed, the surfaces prepped and re-sanded, the path was pretty clear. They’d solved the temperature fluctuation problem with strategic use of both heating and cooling, so what they’d lost in that mammoth obstacle would need to be overcome somehow.
The crew was more than a week behind schedule, and to make up for that shortfall, Allen would spend the remainder of the project putting in 12-hour days…for 29 out of the 30 days before the deadline.
Along the way, they also got a helping hand from Chief Master Sergeant James Dean, the 173rd Fighter Wing Weapons Element Flight Chief and weapons manager. He is responsible for the leadership, supervision and training of assigned personnel within the weapons element.
“I remember Chief Dean coming down there and working for an entire day, just to sanding on a wing to help us get past the hump,” said Staff Sergeant Tim Bodnar.
The team’s vision was to have the aircraft ready to unveil for the 173rd Fighter Wing’s change of command ceremony scheduled for April 3. Even with the jet towed into Hangar 2 for the ceremony, Allen and his team remained at work–racing to the finish even as the change of command rehearsal took place alongside them.
“By taking on this large project, we all got stretched, we all got experience that we can’t get in the day-to-day flying mission, and we all learned a lot,” said Allen. “When it’s time to move up and take on more responsibility, this project helps prepare all of us for that; we know we can take on a big job, we can own our mistakes, troubleshoot problems, and get it done. That’s a huge benefit for my people.”
The aircraft will travel to Finland for a historic first: the bilateral exercise known as “Sentry Lynx,” between the Finnish Air Force and the 173rd Fighter Wing during the month of May.
“I get goose bumps when I look at this jet right now,” Allen said, reflecting over the past two months. “Other people have said that to me, but they don’t understand the reason I get them is because of the worry and the stress–wondering if we could really do it.”
“I have heard a lot of people say and I share their opinion, that this is the coolest fighter that I have ever seen,” said Smith.
We couldn’t agree more!