Black letter flight shows top level maintenance pride

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Del Deatherage
  • 932nd Airlift Wing
It's not often we have "once in a lifetime" events at work in Illinois, but Master Sgt. Patrick Alvarado has experienced this three times in his career.  Sergeant Alvarado achieved three "black letter flights" on his aircraft, tail number "0730" within a four-month period.  As the dedicated crew chief, the aircraft becomes part of his family, requiring his full attention and technical talents.

What is the significance and what does this mean?  A black letter flight signifies that Sergeant Alvarado's aircraft had zero discrepancies and his last name initial is what the pilots saw to determine airworthiness before flight.

This does not happen very often because we often have discrepancies that do not affect the airworthiness of the aircraft and are just waiting on time and parts, in most cases, to complete the repair action.  It's not uncommon to have 10 or more delayed discrepancies in this waiting condition.

Sergeant Alvarado's technical talent, leadership of maintenance actions on his aircraft and attention to detail resulted in three scenarios where not one single discrepancy existed on his aircraft.  A 'Black Letter' flight is significant in any maintainer's career. It is a very rare event, regardless of the age of the airframe.  A "Black Letter" flight is one that by definition has no discrepancies or issues prior to take-off.  Before approval for return to service, the Production Superintendent releases the forms acknowledging the discrepancies to release the aircraft for flight, signifying it is in an airworthy condition and safe for its intended mission.

Flying on a "black letter" plane is almost an impossible task when you recognize we are talking about a machine that is built with more than 600,000 parts that must all be maintained within stringent limits (by comparison, an average car has about 30,000 parts).

The 932nd Maintenance Group has dedicated crew chiefs responsible for each of our four aircraft.  These dedicated crew chiefs are tied at the hip to their aircraft, a relationship like no other.  They are the tip of the spear for our maintenance effort.  Sergeant Alvarado takes a great deal of pride-in-ownership of his jet.  He's serious about what he does and he's been doing it consistently for a long time.  When thanked by his leadership for the amazing job he does every day and particularly on these three black letter occasions, during the November UTA, his response was simply, "Chief, It's just what we do."  It is humbling to work with women and men who have a laser-focus to ensure the job gets done the right way, every time, all the time.

Aircraft are never released for a mission unless they exceed airworthiness standards.  The word "airworthiness" means two things to the 932nd Maintenance Group: 1) that an aircraft meets the design limitations set forth by the manufacturer, and 2) that the aircraft has been determined to be in a condition for safe flight.  But, even when an aircraft meets the standard of airworthiness, additional conditions may remain "written up" in the aircraft forms, which are within safety standards to allow the aircraft to fly its missions.

These discrepancies can include anything from service bulletins that are scheduled to be completed at a later date, acceptable dents and cosmetic flaws, or even broken items that have been deemed to not impact safety of flight.  These items may be deferred until a later date, in accordance with an approved 'Minimum Equipment List'.  The Black Letter flight is evidence that at that moment in time, the aircraft had been maintained with such impeccable detail that there was not a single, solitary discrepancy to record or defer within the aircraft maintenance record.

This is a moment that our entire 932nd Maintenance Group can take pride in, as it is reflects the amazing talent of the entire maintenance team, including our Boeing partners who built the plane.  Every work center in the maintenance complex has had a hand in maintaining this aircraft and making it happen.  Our 932d Maintenance Group team is serious about our vision to be the C-40C center of excellence, providing the safest, best maintained, most reliable aircraft in the United States Air Force for our VIP missions.  This accomplishment is evidence of the hard work they do daily.

I asked our 932nd Maintenance Crew Chief Section Supervisor, Master Sgt. Douglas Hunter, to describe what our team had to go through to pull this off.  He had this to say:

"It is a great honor to report that ACFT 05000730 has flown three "black letter" flights within the past four months.  This has been accomplished in the midst of working 17 out of the last 19 weekends and completing multiple first-time maintenance tasks; all while having nine vacant Air Reserve Technician slots," said Hunter.

"The team supported an engine swap, removal and replacement of the number three window, and the removal, repair, and replacement of an inboard trailing edge flap.  All three of these were completed within a week of each other following an A-check inspection.  This work by itself is remarkable, but countless other tasks were completed to get the aircraft to the point of "perfection" continued Hunter.

"Many technical training orders have been planned out and completed by our team members.  Hundreds of man-hours have been spent inspecting and re-inspecting every system.  This team - our team - does amazing work.  This is only one measurement that proves that," he added.

"Our team is a step above the rest.  We expect perfection and sometimes get beat up in our effort to reach it.  I hope we are all able to bask in the glory of success for a moment," Hunter concluded.

The commander of the 932nd Maintenance Group, Col. Sharon Johnson, was just as impressed as those on the team.

"This is my fourth maintenance group command with 36 years of service in the United States Air Force, and this is only the second time I've had the pleasure of working with a black letter crew chief.  This accomplishment speaks volumes for Master Sgt. Alvarado's commitment, and the maintenance team's focus on excellent maintenance practices, policies and support.  I walked into an amazing maintenance team and look forward to seeing greatness like this from the entire team," she said.