JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va --
Outfitted in white overalls, gloves, boots, earplugs and a face shield, two Airmen cautiously perform their duties while surrounded by a shroud of vapors.
They are donned in gear meant to protect them from the very substance that helps to protect lives at high altitudes.
The scene resembles that of a science fiction movie -- moving in slow motion as the various sounds of the flightline are subconsciously replaced by the eerie sound of shallow breaths in a mask.
Airmen assigned to the 733rd Logistics Readiness Squadron fuels facility perform one of their many responsibilities, ensuring pilots have oxygen at high altitudes.
“We use liquid oxygen to provide Aviators’ Breathing Oxygen to the T-38 [Talon] pilots, because at high altitudes the air gets thinner and they have to breath,” said Staff Sgt. Benjamin Moore, 733rd LRS fuels facilities supervisor. “[According to Air Force standards], we have to make sure the liquid oxygen is at least 99.5 percent pure.
According to Moore, a sample of liquid oxygen is provided to the lab at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, every 90 days to ensure it maintains that level of pureness. If the lab determines a sample is not up to standards, the liquid oxygen tanks would have to be drained and purged, which includes heating the tank to get rid of any contaminants. Once the tanks are purged, they would have to be slowly filled with new product.
Moore insisted this is hardly ever the case though, explaining most of the time the liquid oxygen is well above standardsat an average between 99.7 and 99.8 percent.
While the T-38 is not the only aircraft at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, James Baldwin, 733rd LRS fuels facilities fuels distribution systems operator, said due to advances in technology, liquid oxygen is not required for the F-22 Raptor.
“The more modern aircraft are set up with an on-board oxygen producing system, so they are not tied to liquid oxygen. It’s simply an improvement in technology,” Baldwin explained. “With a lot of the older aircraft, the technology has not been retrofitted to them. Here, the F-22s don’t need it, but the T-38s do and there are some aircraft [that land here] that may sometimes need it, so I generally get some heads up on that and coordinate for support on those aircraft.”
The fuels Airmen responsible for providing this basic necessity are also credited with managing and maintaining the hydrant systems that provide jets with their basic necessity: jet fuel.
“[Our] contractors primarily take care of receiving the jet fuel and we store it,” Baldwin said. “When the fuel is received, it is stored in four storage tanks. It goes through the quality control process, and as we need fuel, we transfer it from those tanks to our primary tanks, which are hooked into our underground hydrant systems for operations on the flightline.”
Much like the liquid oxygen, many steps are taken to ensure quality jet fuel is used to power aircraft on the installation, to include checking the tank currently in use every 24 hours for water, as well as sampling jet fuel to make sure it is clear and without contaminants.
In addition to its impact on flightline operations, fuels facilities also ensure government vehicles on base are provided with fuel and buildings are supplied with ground products they may need.
According to Baldwin, fuels facilities also receive and store ground products, such as gasoline, standard low sulfur diesel and biodiesel -- which is more environmentally friendly.
“A lot of the buildings on base have backup generators in case they lose commercial power,” Moore said. “This is very important, especially at the hospital, because you have the neonatal unit for example -- they have babies who require special attention. If the power were to go offline, that’s a disaster right there. Our fuel in the generator makes it so that little guy or gal can keep going until the power comes back on.”
Despite the wide range and impact of the responsibilities held by fuels facilities Airmen, they are proud that they play an important role in providing airpower.
“Duty to country and patriotism has kept [me doing this job for so long],” Baldwin explained. “I value the things this country represents and stands behind; the defense of it is part of that. I’ve been involved in fuels operations since 1972. I think about [retiring] from time-to-time, but then in performing my duties here on the flightline and being a part of the flying operations, I just think to myself sometimes what I would do without this.”
Moore expressed similar sentiments as he explained what inspires him to devote himself to the mission and country.
“I like that our job touches so many aspects of the Air Force -- whether it is helping a pilot breathe, keeping people in the hospital safe through generators, helping someone come home to their loved ones from deployment by fueling their plane or helping them get to the fight to help protect others -- it’s all connected,” he said. “I want to give taxpayers a reason to be proud; it’s an important job, and I like giving back to the greater good. It makes me feel like I’m making a difference, and that’s part of the reason why I became an Airman.”