Maintainers keep KC-135 flying with black-letter initial

From left to right, Airman 1st Class Austin Hendrix, Staff Sgt. Mark Marcuson and Senior Airman Daniel Montgomery are three of the four maintainers from the 100th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron responsible for KC-135, tail number 62-3562, flying out with a black letter initial July 21. The black letter initial meant  there was nothing wrong with the plane, no work orders were due and nothing needed to be fixed or replaced.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Teresa Pumphrey)

From left to right, Airman 1st Class Austin Hendrix, Staff Sgt. Mark Marcuson and Senior Airman Daniel Montgomery are three of the four maintainers from the 100th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron responsible for KC-135, tail number 62-3562, flying out with a black letter initial July 21. The black letter initial meant there was nothing wrong with the plane, no work orders were due and nothing needed to be fixed or replaced. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Teresa Pumphrey)

RAF MILDENHALL, England -- The gray hulking KC-135 sits on the ramp, making the three crew chiefs scurrying around it look like ants. 

The Airmen work to ready the plane for its next mission, set for the morning of July 21. 

The jet spools its engines, beginning with the co-pilot's side. 

The three crew chiefs scatter; two of them move to safety while the third positions himself across the taxiway, ready to marshal the aircraft. 

Tail number 62-3562 slowly leaves the ramp with a special distinction. On that day, July 21, it flew a black-letter initial, which meant there was nothing wrong with the plane. No work orders were due and nothing needed to be fixed or replaced. 

Some people may be surprised the feat doesn't happen more often than it does.
"Black letter initials are rare because it's really hard to get your airplane down to zero write-ups," said Airman Andrew McNamara 100th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and crew chief on the black-letter-initial aircraft. "Some jobs take down-time to finish." 

"This is my third (black- letter initial) in 21 years of flying," said Master Sgt. Mike Conner, 100th Operations Group and instructor boom operator on the black letter initial flight.
Sometimes it can be difficult to stay on top of all the plane's work orders. 

"With the complexity of this aircraft, there's always something to fix," said Senior Airman Daniel Montgomery, 100th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and crew chief on the black-letter-initial aircraft. "The (KC-135) airframe is 50 years old." 

When most planes fly, they fly with minor problems. While the plane is flying, one thing might break. After it lands, the crew chiefs could find something else has broken. While the plane is on the ground, maintainers are able to fix one thing before the plane is slated for its next flight. After it lands, the crew chiefs find two more problems and the paperwork adds up. Now the plane's crew chiefs must work even harder to wade through twice as many write ups. 

Once the problems are corrected, the crew chiefs cross it off their list. If they are able to whittle the to-do list down to nothing, the plane flies with a black-letter initial. 

Achieving such a goal is a big deal. It speaks highly of the team and their jet. 

"As a pilot, it means I have crew chiefs who really take pride in what they do," said Capt. Tharon Sperry, 100th Air Refueling Wing chief of training. "It's almost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fly in a plane with no write ups. These guys have worked hard to make (the black letter initial) happen. They're out there working in the heat and the freezing rain." 

"It speaks well for the crew chiefs who maintain the aircraft," Sergeant Conner said. "They spend a lot of time with the aircraft and take pride in producing a well-maintained aircraft." 

While such a success speaks well for the entire crew, they refuse to rest on their laurels.
Airman Montgomery said in the future, he thinks they could get another black-letter initial as long as they had the same jet and the same crew, but for now, he'd like to set a record for the longest black-letter initial. 

(Editor's note: Staff Sgt. Mark Marcuson and Airman 1st Class Austin Hendrix, both of 100th AMXS, are also crew chiefs with this aircraft and helped get the black-letter initial)