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Every Military Veteran has a Seabee Story

Major Dennis West USMCR Ret.

Army, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard or Navy, if you spend 20 or more years in the service, you are going to run into a Seabee, Guaranteed. My story occurred in the summer of 1974 as a young 1st Lieutenant of Marines (USMC) flying a Brand New A-4M Skyhawk. As a young and relatively inexperienced aviator, I was not allowed out of the hanger with an aircraft on my own, unless closely supervised. And with good reason, young aviators with less than a 1,000 of flight time can be relied upon to do the wrong thing; Often breaking expensive jets. This was 1974, during the fuel crisis, when I was unexpectedly granted a weekend “cross-county” in a Brand New single seat jet fighter attack A-4M aircraft. “Cross-Country”, One of those jaunts to build flight hours and experience, at a minimal cost for gas. A trip whereby you are given an aircraft on Friday afternoon, and a credit card for gas, and the admonishment, to stay out of trouble and be back Sunday night with the jet. That’s it, no other rules, and in this case, no supervision, and the only rule: “be back Sunday with the jet”. With plenty of rope to hang oneself, I set off.

I played by the book, flew hard and with nearly 18 hours flight time logged, the weekend was drawing to a close, I had successfully jetted around the country Friday afternoon, all day Saturday, and Sunday, gaining valuable flight time and experience, and most importantly with out getting in trouble or breaking the jet. My last stop was Wright Patterson AFB near Dayton Ohio. A large AF base within range of my last leg home to Marine Corps Air Station MCAS Beaufort SC. It was late Sunday morning as I landed on Wright Pat’s 14,000 foot runway, and rolled to a stop. I was tired, but elated, one more leg and I’m done! As I shut down the A/C and swing to the ground (you’ve got to be an acrobat to get in and out of a attack jet) I noticed a puddle of hydraulic fluid under the nose gear. “Damn, now what?” Upon closer inspection with the Air Force plane captain, an E2 with about the same military longevity as myself, we find a split hydraulic line on the nose landing gear. A small metal tube that conducts hydraulic fluid to the nose wheel steering mechanism. I wasn’t going anywhere unless the leak was fixed.

Inquiring about repair with the Wright Patterson AF mechanics was a dead end. “Buddy we don’t have any A-4’s and we don’t fix broken Marine Aircraft”. “Just the ones with USAF painted on the side”.

Great I thought, now what? So I call home, VMA 311 in Beaufort SC and get the duty corporal: “Sir, there is no one here at the hangar, and the Gunny just called and asked if you were back yet”. Great, I thought, no help there and I’d better get back soon, the Gunny’s looking for his new aircraft. My name might be painted on the side of the aircraft, but there wasn’t any doubt in my mind who really owned the jet and I better not ‘break’ it.

I look at the Air force Airman and he offers; “There is a Navy Reserve Unit down in the Supply area; maybe they can help?” I remembered that it was Sunday afternoon and the reserves work weekends. Well hey, the Navy has A4s: lets go check it out! So off we go in the line tractor, the young Air Force Airman with the young Marine Lieutenant in Green Nomex flight suit, brown Boots, shaved hair and a khaki cover. I always looked young for my age. Years later while a jet flight instructor, the folks asking questions about aviation would always direct the questions to my students, assuming they were the flight instructor - I simply did not look my age. As a young 1st Lt., I looked like some high school kid who had stolen a flight suit. We rolled down between all these storage warehouses in the supply area, I mean dozens of warehouses. Rolling to a stop in front of one, with a sign depicting a bee with a Thompson machine gun, which in my haste I did not see,

I hop off the tractor and open the door. Before me is a corner of the warehouse with a large table and maybe 8 to 10 big, old guys in green utilities playing cards. I instantly recognize them as Seabees. Old Reserve Seabees, with the junior one probably having over 25 years of service. Oh no, I thought to myself, these guys aren’t Navy, they’re ‘Seabees’, and what do Seabees know about aircraft? One of the green clad warriors at the poker table, the chief, I assumed he was a chief, you never know with Seabees, looked up at the teenage pilot; “What can we do for you sonny”.

Oh Well, in for a penny in for a pound - here goes; “I explained my “A4 had a broken hydraulic line and could you guys fix it?”…………..“Well sonny”, with the accent heavy on the Sonny, “we can take a look at you ’re tinker toy and see what we can do.” Choking down my indignation and flattened pride as a Marine Officer reduced to ‘Sonny’ I follow 4 of the Seabees outside and wave-off the USAF Airman, I climb into the back seat of a battered gray USN truck and off we go to the flight line, listening to stories about the “last time I had to fix a Marine aircraft was on Guadalcanal”.

Arriving at the aircraft the Seabees pile out to look at the broken hyd. line, talking amongst themselves. Regulated to the back row, I couldn’t see what they were doing. The chief turns around and says, “Hal, you and Ed go get the tools: Dave, you and me and Sonny here will go get the part”. Off Hal and Ed go in one truck and I get in the back seat of the other truck with the chief and Dave. Off we go through miles of warehouses, listening to stories of the “Last time I had to fix a Marine Tank was on Okinawa”, we pull up in front of a ubiquitous white warehouse, left over presumably from WWII and stop. Out they go, me following like the pet dog. The chief has a key that opens the warehouse door, a musty place unopened in the past 20+ years I think. Over they go to some wooden bins, and they are soon sorting though what appears to be piles of junk. Watching closely, I see the chief snatch up some scrape of tubing, probably left over from a WWII P47 Thunderbolt, looking it over, he puts one end of the tube to his mouth and blows, snorting some debris out the other end, while exclaiming, “ah-ha, got it”; Like he’s found something. I’m thinking, “do these guys know what they doing?” Since I am just along for the ride, I follow them back out to the truck and we roared back to my A4 meeting up with Hal, Ed and the tools back at the aircraft, l stand fidgeting in the background while the four Seabees work on the split Hydraulic line.

After a short bit of hammering and bending and cutting; the chief turns to me and says; “Ok Sonny fire it up.” Cripes I’m thinking, these guys aren’t aircraft mechanics, I shouldn’t let them work on my plane and here one of them is telling me to start her up. Well I thought, they seem to know what their doing. So I fire up the A4 assisted by the Air force flight line airman and apply Hydraulic Pressure to the line and: Hooray, no leak - the fix is in! The Seabees are all thumbs up and smiles. The air force guy is happy; he can get rid of me. I shut down the aircraft and climb down from the cockpit to catch the Seabees already leaving in their dented gray USN truck and thank them; “Hey, Guys, thanks” I call out as they drive off. “no sweat sonny”, Dave call out from the side window “always glad to help the Marines”, as they drive off back to their poker game. I look at the Air force airman, “good guys those Seabees, they can fix anything.” I start the A4 back up, and fly it back to MCAS Beaufort SC, park the jet and retire to the BOQ.

On Monday I asked the Maintenance Control Chief Gunny, “how’s aircraft 08 (the one I’d flown) doing and if the hydraulic leak was still fixed?” “Oh, yeah sir, good job those air force mechanics did on her, just great”. I was afraid to tell him that the Seabees had fixed the aircraft. It’s been 30 years, do you suppose the statue of limitations for aircraft maintenance fraud is up?

Dennis West
One Time A4 pilot
Boca Raton FL
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