Air Force test team launches 'overhauled' Iraqi aircraft

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    Air Force test team launches 'overhauled' Iraqi aircraft
    EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE: Airmen from several Air Force bases spent two months preparing, disassembling, rebuilding and testing an Iraqi Air Force Comp Air 7SLX, which had its first test flight here April 25.

    The aircraft is considered experimental, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. It is designed to be an unarmed aircraft used to patrol oil pipelines and other infrastructure targeted by insurgents.

    "This six-seater aircraft, which is a kit-built plane, was developed by a company in Merritt Island, Fla., called AeroComp which sold the aircraft to the United Arab Emirates," said Lt. Col. Michael Pelletier, 412th Maintenance Group deputy commander and Iraqi Comp Air Project team lead. The team had representatives from here, Robins Air Force Base, Ga., Hill AFB, Utah, and Tinker AFB, Okla.

    The UAE gave several Comp Air 7SLXs to Iraq in November 2004, Colonel Pelletier said. However, a crash in May which killed one Iraqi and four Americans, prompted the Iraqi government to request assistance in flight-testing this aircraft.

    The Air Force Flight Test Center responded to a request for support from U.S. Central Command Air Forces in October. They sent a six-person team consisting of maintainers, flight test engineers and test pilots to Kirkuk Air Base, Iraq, to begin initial flight tests in theater.

    While in Iraq, the team annotated the flying characteristics and maintenance condition of the aircraft. They returned to Edwards with several recommendations about repairs and modifications to improve flying qualities and overall maintenance condition, Colonel Pelletier said.

    In January, a 20-person test team was assembled here to implement those recommendations.

    "The test team's job is to totally disassemble one of the aircraft at Edwards, make repairs as necessary, take out some of the post-production (modifications) to return the aircraft to its original factory configuration and build up four kits for the remaining aircraft," Colonel Pelletier said. "Bottom line -- we are making these aircraft safer to fly."

    Using this aircraft, the team will assemble everything from nuts and bolts to the propellers, engines and screwdrivers needed to repair the four aircraft in theater. Then the team will deploy to Iraq to not only fix the Comp Air planes, but to also share their findings with Iraqi maintainers, said Chief Master Sgt. William Ludwig, assigned to the 411th Flight Test Squadron and project superintendent.

    "This is a team that was assembled on short notice," Colonel Pelletier said. "We had to do some rapid training in Merritt Island with the manufacturer to become familiar with the plane and learn how to tackle composite repairs on a kit-built aircraft -- things that most U.S. Air Force technicians don't get a chance to do."

    Following the Florida training, one of the Iraqi Comp Air planes was shipped to Edwards.

    "When the plane arrived it was wingless and would not even run," Chief Ludwig said. "There had been countless modifications to the aircraft, which made it necessary for the team to bring it back to factory specifications."

    "Trying to bring (the aircraft) back to factory specs was a challenge because there were so many modifications to the aircraft, from the nose gear and flight controls to the wiring and fuel tank location," said Tech. Sgt. Rick Fujimoto from the 653rd Combat Logistic Support Squadron at Robins AFB and one of four crew chiefs on the project. "So, for the last 30 days we've not only been taking it back to factory specs, but making it better than what the Iraqis had -- even adding military parts to make it safer."

    This project had to be approached from an entirely new mindset, Colonel Pelletier said.

    "The team had to come in, think outside the box and do a lot on the fly with minimal training," Colonel Pelletier said. "They have been able to draw on their years of experience and apply that knowledge to this aircraft."

    One of the challenges facing the team was the lack of technical orders.

    "As aircraft maintainers we use technical orders to accomplish every job we do on an airplane," Sergeant Fujimoto said. "With this aircraft we don't have that option. There's hardly any tech data, so what we're doing is figuring out what procedures need to be in place, involving engineers who look at the proposed procedures and approve them. Then it becomes the (technical order) for that particular job."

    Because the teams are working to get these planes back in the air as quickly and safely as possible, time is an important factor.

    "We are trying to stick to a schedule, but every day is something different," Sergeant Fujimoto said. "A normal fuel line installation would only take 30 minutes, but for this aircraft it could take four or five hours due to the location of the fuel line or what parts we have on-hand."

    The Comp Air 7SLX is unlike any plane in the Air Force inventory. This made it necessary to produce many of the parts here.

    "The fabrication is unbelievable," Sergeant Fujimoto said. "The best person for this job would probably be a surfboard builder. There is a lot of time-consuming fiberglass work, but I've got four sheet metal guys who, with a four day crash-course and the ability to draw from their varied experience on different aircraft, came together and there's nothing they can't do."

    As the flight test portion of the project gears up, the team will prepare to deploy near the end of May.

    "This is just our version of 'Overhaulin,'" Sergeant Fujimoto said, referring to the television show. "We took this (aircraft) down to what looked like a Volkswagen bug shell and built it from the bottom all the way back up. We'll do it again in theater -- four times over."

    According to Capt. Nick Hague, 416th Flight Test Squadron flight commander and project flight test engineer, the 11 maintainers assigned to this project tackled a daunting task.

    "Their 24/7 dedication is the only reason we were able to get this plane back in the air and have the opportunity to provide the Iraqis with a safer aircraft," he said.

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