Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Scariest Job In The Air Force

A Pratt And Whitney J52 engine

The Weeds and Seeds detail lasted most of the summer of 1965, what had started out as hard labor turned out to be a nice break.  At AMMS there would always be “busy work” to take up down time, at Weeds and Seeds I pretty much defined my own day.  At one point they lost track of me for 3 weeks.  I'd been assigned back to AMMS for one day in order to participate in an exercise.  The next day I reported at Civil Engineering.

“What are you doing here, you've been reassigned back to AMMS?”

So I schlepped over to AMMS

What are you doing here, you're still on detail?”

So I schlepped back to Civil Engineering

Hell man, I don't know. Take off for awhile until we figure it out.”

I spent 3 weeks at home.  Oh, I went in from time to time to check on my status.  They sent me home each time, until one day the First Shirt at AMMS called me “Hey you're off detail after all, c'mon back in."

During my time at Weeds and Seeds I met a fellow musician who hooked me up with an R&B group called “The Jades.”  We played the Officers, NCO and Airmen's clubs, plus we did dances in the area.  We also traveled up to Winnipeg, Manitoba from time to time to play at The Hungry I”, a teen club downtown.  Winnipeg was a serious hotbed of musical inventiveness at the time with Randy Bachman, Chad Allen, Lenny Breau and other first rate Canadian musicians creating some fantastic rock.  Every time The Jades played Winnipeg, we got a lot of attention.  Now I was a married guy, but I couldn't help but notice how friendly those Canadian girls were.  Had I not been married, I'd have taken full advantage of the situation believe me.

But here's the thing... I was surprised they even noticed me, they never had before.  I was what you might call a “late bloomer”, and now as I was getting older I guess I was becoming more attractive to women.  Maybe it had to do with the fact that I was beginning to develop that split personality that entertainers have.  I was still reticent as ever as Pat Bergin/Missile Tech, but quite outgoing as Pat Bergin/Musician.  I could back-slap and BS with the best of them as long as I was wearing the musician hat.

And son of a gun those Winnipeg girls were friendly!

I'd quit the radio job before hooking up with the Jades.  It wasn't going anywhere, and didn't pay squat anyway.  I made a few bucks more with The Jades, and had a hell of a lot more fun.

Back home, there had been some changes at the Bergin household.  Little Laurie Sue had come along a while back, and was walking and starting to talk now.  We'd rescued a little dog, and when she saw it she was thrilled. “Buppy... buppy” she called it, so “Buppy the Puppy” became part of the family.  There was another little one on the way, so I began to think we needed some reliable transportation.  I'd bought a '56 Chevy from another fly boy, but it was a junker and couldn't be trusted.  I needed some new wheels, and in order to get them I needed additional income.

The most popular group around Minot at the time was The Messengers.  Consisting of Don Johnston on piano and vocals, “Red” O'Connor on sax and Frank Longo on bass, they dominated the club scene in Minot.  One day I learned that their drummer had left so I got in touch with Don.  That same day I quit The Jades, and joined The Messengers.  It was a 6 night/week gig so the schedule was brutal, but the money was excellent.   In one day, I'd gone from a low income fly boy making a couple of bucks on the side, to an income level on par with a Colonel.   New car, here I come!

Back at AMMS, I'd been assigned duty in Combined Systems.  My job was to stand in the bay, and trim the engine.  Now for those of you who've never been close to a running jet engine before, let me tell you that sucker is loud!  I'd hook up a starter collar to the power take-off on the engine, and run the hose over to an MA-1A “Start Cart” which had it's own jet engine inside.  Once I fired that up, I'd stand back as the crew inside hit the switch which sent high velocity air into the hose spinning the spline inside collar, and subsequently the engine's compressors.  Eventually the engine would start, and I would crawl back underneath to remove the collar.

Then came the “fun part.”   The J-52-P3 had been designed to run at full-bore for an hour, that's it.  In an hour it would've reached it's target and blown the hell out of whatever it was programmed to hit, with a 1.5 Megaton weapon on board it would've flattened anything it was aimed at.  The engine had to be trimmed at nearly full power, a setting known as “Max Continuous.”   I had to get down under the running engine and install a small metal stop to prevent the fuel control from going to “Max Power” which would've caused an over heat condition.  If that happened the engine would have to be rebuilt.   Once the stop was on, they revved her up.  I could see 30 feet of blue flame coming out the end of the engine, the noise was beyond description as 7500 lbs of power strained on the test stand.  I could actually see the bolts trying to pull out of the floor as I got next the the thing and adjusted the fuel flow with my little Allen wrench.   Seriously scary stuff!!

The next time you settle in to a seat on an airliner, take a look outside at the wing and give a thought to the guy who had to crawl under it with an Allen wrench.  I'll bet he changes his underwear a lot more than you do!

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