[Editor’s Note: Sometimes the heroes in a particular story are those whose service is unsung. Fact is, none of the airplanes which we love to talk and write about would be anything except very large, ridiculously expensive paper-weights without fuel. We ran across this story and thought it would be fun to share a critical component of the U-2 Dragon Lady‘s mission, especially in this “fiscally-constrained” operational environment!]
A steady rumble cancels out the sound of the outside world as the pistons within the twin Cummins 400 diesel engines have begun to churn, Josef Walter, a locomotive engineer with the 9th Support Division, is at the helm of the 80-ton locomotive on Beale Air Force Base.
The train is heading south towards Beale’s Bulk Storage Plant, which houses the Jet Propellant Thermally Stable (JPTS) fuel used by the U-2 Dragon Lady.
“JPTS fuel is specifically made for the U-2 and high-altitude flight,” said Mark Hoover, terminal superintendent Bulk Storage Plant.
The U-2 is a high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft that routinely flies at altitudes more than 70,000 ft.
“Due to the lower temperatures at altitudes greater than 70,000 ft. the standard JP-8 fuel used by most aircraft will not suffice. Additives within the JPTS fuel enable the aircraft to operate at high-altitudes,” Hoover said.
Initially used as a supply train during World War II, the train has been transporting JPTS-fuel for the U-2 for decades. The fuel is transported via rail from Texas. Occasionally, the fuel will be transported via truckloads. However, one rail car equals four truckloads, which makes transporting by rail more cost effective.
“Transporting the fuel by train is the cheaper option,” Walter said. “It is important to use whatever tools the Air Force has available to save money, and the transportation by rail is a quarter of the cost of transportation by truck.”
A train operating on an Air Force installation is extremely rare. There are only a small number of Air Force installations with operating trains. Although only one train exists at Beale and operates at a restricted speed of 5 mph, potential dangers remain.
“Safety is our highest priority when operating the train,” said Sam Mertes, a locomotive engineer with the 9th Support Division. Years ago we had lights installed at the intersection of J St. and Gavin Mandery; before those lights were installed there was a higher risk of danger.”
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, in 2014 there were an estimated 2,287 rail collisions, 849 rail related injuries and 269 rail incident related deaths.
However, there has not been a train related incident at Beale for more than seven years.
According to Mertes, she was the first train operator at Beale to receive training from the Army to operate a locomotive. Mertes has been operating the train since 1995 and is the supervisor of locomotive operations at Beale.
“I have always enjoyed operating the train,” Mertes said. “It’s very relaxing and peaceful. I was born on Beale, and I have always taken pride in the mission here. I provide the fuel for the highest flying aircraft in the world, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the high-altitude ISR mission.”
The original article can be viewed here.
(Featured photo: The Beale train transports Jet Propellant Thermally Stable (JPTS) fuel to the installation Bulk Storage Plant Jan. 20, 2016, at Beale Air Force Base, California. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jeffrey M. Schultze)