BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --
BARKSDALE AFB, La. - The crew of B-52 Stratofortress 60-051 was on final approach Dec. 19, 2017 to Barksdale Air Force Base, La. when they heard an odd sound, like a thud, coming from outside the jet. All systems remained normal and the crew had no trouble maintaining control of the aircraft, landing without incident.
After departing the jet, the crew discovered the sound they heard was actually a lightning strike that tore a person-sized gash completely through the tail of the aircraft.
The B-52 is equipped with a lightning arrester designed to mitigate damage from lightning strikes, but this one was too strong even for the jet’s safeguards.
“We see a handful of strikes every year, but out of all the maintainers we have, no one had seen lightning damage that bad,” said Lt. Col. George P. Cole, III, 307th Maintenance Squadron commander. “That includes personnel that have been with the unit for more than 20 years.”
After assessing the damage, it was determined the entire tail of the jet would have to be replaced, a large-scale, and uncommon, repair.
“I’ve been with the unit for fifteen years and this is the first time we have had to change a tail,” said Senior Master Sgt. Michael Nelson, 307th MXS flight maintenance superintendent. “We only had one other maintainer on our team that has ever changed one.”
Master Sgt. Eric Allison, 307th MXS B-52 aircraft mechanic, was the only maintainer on the eight person team with experience replacing a tail prior to the lighting strike.
“It’s challenging because you have to position the tail just right and it is a two-thousand pound piece of metal,” he said.
Placement of the tail is critical and can be troublesome due to its weight, flexibility and sheer size.
“It is like lining up the hinges when replacing a door,” said Tech. Sgt. David Emberton, 307th MXS B-52 aircraft mechanic. “You have to line it up correctly and the whole time it is twisting and flexing.”
To overcome those obstacles Emberton, the crane operator on the team, had to rely on crew members spotting the tail’s placement while other physically moved the tail into place.
“The crane can only move the tail forward, backward, left and right,” he said. “So, two maintainers with tag lines had to guide it in to place and I had to rely on hand signals from them to know which direction to move.”
Nelson explained the mechanics did not have to wait for a new tail because one happened to be available from another jet that is no longer in service. Otherwise, the part would have to be ordered from the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, which salvages parts from Air Force planes no longer in use.
“Having that tail on hand saved us a great deal of time because ordering it from AMARG would have taken months,” he said.
Not having to deal with the coordination, labor and transportation required to order the part also translated to significant cost savings.
“AMARG couldn’t give us a cost because the part wasn’t stock listed and never been ordered before,” said Cole. “That said, cost savings is in the tens of thousands just for shipping alone.
In spite of all the complexities involved, the jet is now back to mission capable and flying sorties in support of the 307th Bomb Wing mission after just a few weeks.
“This was a once-in-a career event, but our crew chiefs are skilled enough to handle it and we were ready with the necessary equipment,” said Cole.