Tech Sgt. Clay Dotson wears a new harness that helps replace parachutes aboard KC-135 Stratotankers. Sergeant Dotson is a boom operator assigned to the 18th Air Refueling Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Jason Schaap)
Tech. Sgt. Ken Bragg steers his parachute during virtual training at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, on Oct. 4. Sergeant Bragg is the 15th Operations Support Squadron wing tactics NCO in charge. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo)
by Tech. Sgt. Jason Schaap
931st Air Refueling Group Public Affairs
3/4/2008 - MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- By design, parachutes slow things down. Crew members forced to evacuate in-flight aircraft with parachutes, for example, have much gentler impacts with the ground than those without chutes.
But the only thing being slowed by parachutes aboard KC-135 Stratotankers, Air Force leaders recently decided, was the mission. So they got rid of them.
Removing parachutes from military aircraft may sound peculiar, but KC-135s are not like other aircraft. They seldom have mishaps, and the likelihood a KC-135 crew member would ever need to use a parachute is extremely low.
However, a lot of time, manpower and money goes into buying, maintaining and training to use parachutes. With the Air Force hungry for cost-saving efficiency under its Air Force for Smart Operations in the 21st Century Program, commonly known as AFSO 21, the parachutes were deemed obsolete.
Tech. Sgt. Chastity Forrest is in charge of life support for the 18th Air Refueling Squadron, the flying squadron for Air Force Reserve Command's 931st Air Refueling Group. She and the squadron's flyers were "thrilled" to learn hours of annual parachute training were disappearing as well, Sergeant Forrest said.
"It's one less thing for them to worry about," she said, referring also to the time saved by not having to include parachutes in preflight procedures.
And from a safety standpoint, Sergeant Forrest said, it is difficult to find a crew member who would grab a parachute and jump out of a KC-135 in trouble. It is statistically safer to stay with the aircraft, especially when flying over enemy territory. Master Sgt. John "Tex" Austin, 18th ARS boom operator, agreed.
"If the plane is under control, you are going to stay with it," Sergeant Austin said. "If it's out of control, you're not going to be able to get to the parachute anyway."
Col. Clay Childs, deputy commander of the 931st ARG, said he has never thought about strapping on a parachute for evacuating a KC-135 in the 20 years he has been flying Stratotankers. And the passenger planes he pilots for his civilian employer have never been equipped with parachutes.
Colonel Childs witnessed the advantage of parachute-less KC-135s when he first learned of the decision to be rid of them. He was serving as a deputy commander while deployed to Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan, when a KC-135 assigned to the base developed a maintenance issue.
The aircraft's escape spoiler, a device used to block wind and allow evacuees to jump clear of an in-flight aircraft, was not working. The KC-135 was grounded, Colonel Childs said, until a maintainer pointed out there were no parachutes on it. With no need for a working spoiler, the aircraft became mission-ready and a prime example how AFSO 21 thinking can benefit the Air Force.
A new piece of equipment, a harness crew members wear, is now required to be stored on KC-135s when parachutes are removed. The harness is used to attach flyers to aircraft during rare instances that create a potential for a flyer to be sucked outside. A warning light signaling a door is loose is a good but uncommon example, Sergeant Forrest said, of when a flyer might need to wear the harness.
The harness is a new responsibility that life support technicians and flyers gladly accept in lieu of parachute maintenance and training, Sergeant Forrest said.
An entire parachute has to be unpacked for inspection, where a harness inspection can be done in minutes. The parachute class Sergeant Forrest taught for flyers was four hours long. Now she teaches them how to wear the harness in about half an hour. (Air Force Reserve Command News Service)