TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
Tragedy struck the hearts of many in September of 1993. What seemed to be an exciting day for crew chiefs and maintainers, in a matter of seconds, turned into a day of sorrow after a helicopter accident took the life of a comrade.
Before the accident, Airmen from the 67th Fighter Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan, took advantage of their free time to grab lunch after successfully launching the unit’s F-15 Eagles for their mission.
“On our way back, we noticed Tech. Sgt. Wade walking to work and enjoying his cigarette prior to reaching his unit,” said then Staff Sgt. Keith Hamn, 67th FS F-15 crew chief. “Our maintenance expeditor stopped to ask if he needed a ride, he thanked us, but wanted to finish his walk.”
Unbeknownst to them, it would be the last time they would see or hear from Wade again.
“A short time later, we received word that Tech. Sgt. Wade was severely injured when a taxiing helicopter’s rotors struck a light pole, sending fragments in all directions and unfortunately into Mr. Wade,” Hamn said. “We were later informed that Tech. Sgt. Wade succumbed to his injuries.”
However, Robert Wade’s life and service to his country would not be forgotten and would live on through an unexpected way.
Some of the helicopter’s rotor fragments made their way across the flightline, inflicting major damage to aircraft 78-484, an F-15C.
Aircraft 78-484, was nearly condemned by the Air Force and sat in a hardened aircraft shelter for over two years, where it was used for parts, said retired Senior Master Sgt. Ronald P. Wagner, a Boeing F-22 Raptor simulator technician with the 325th Training Support Squadron.
“The Air Force eventually found some required structural pieces and assigned me and my team to rebuild the aircraft,” Wagner added.
Wagner was only a staff sergeant, working as a crew chief with the 67th FS when he was tasked with the rebuild project.
This rebuild was no simple undertaking. It took a lot of dedication from the maintainers who brought the F-15C back to life.
“The rebuild required an in depth inspection of every inch of the aircraft,” said Lawrence Riggins, a senior airman assigned to 67th FS as a crew chief during the time of the rebuild. “Every hydraulic line, wire bundle, panel and bay had to be thoroughly inspected for damage, missing parts, and foreign object damage.”
The F-15C became a cannibal aircraft, meaning its parts were used to repair other aircraft and, prior to the rebuild, was thought to be headed to the boneyard, a place for retired aircraft to be stored or used for scraps.
“The initial number of open discrepancies for components took up about 1,600 pages of aircraft forms,” Wagner noted. “At three discrepancies per page, we were looking at about 4,800 discrepancies. But, that was only what was documented.”
The rebuild, although a challenging task for many, became a rewarding experience for the 67th FS crew chiefs who were assigned to its reconstruction.
“I have always loved a challenge and knew this would be one of the most difficult of my career,” Wagner said. “But it also brought with it a chance to learn, teach and lead folks toward a difficult but attainable, measurable and meaningful goal.”
After almost a year of hard work and determination, the time for the F-15C to soar again was inching closer and becoming more of a reality.
“Now, we maintainers can be a strange bunch,” Wagner said. “We talk to our jets and we give them names. Heck we even attribute many things the aircraft does to its ‘personality.’ In reality though we all know they are just well-engineered bundles of metal and wires and electronics. But every so often something wonderful really does happen.”
The rebuild team lovingly referred to the F-15C as Patches, due to the noticeable amount of repairs on the aircraft.