Veteran hands keep aging choppers aloft

Discussion in 'Modern' started by syscom3, Sep 2, 2008.

  1. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

    Jun 4, 2005
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    Orange County, CA
    News: Veteran hands keep aging choppers aloft | goss, fire, helicopters, authority, wilson -

    Delicate work, and plenty of precision, are the stock in trade of OC Fire Authority technicians.
    The Orange County Register

    FULLERTON The Jesus nut holds it all together. Lose that, and your world comes crashing down – in a hurry.

    Mike Goss, senior helicopter technician for the Orange County Fire Authority, isn't going to let that happen. Not on his watch. And not to one of his helicopters – a tag-team pair of vintage Vietnam holdovers that have been nipped, tucked and retouched, in a determined effort to keep the airships airworthy and in the firefight.

    Goss smells like jet fuel; his calloused hands are streaked in grease. His style is unorthodox – and unapologetic – as he does a job that might sound incredible: tearing two helicopters down to the last nut and bolt and patching them back together.

    "You do your job and I'll do mine and we won't have any problems," said Goss, taking his Fire Authority baseball cap off to scratch the top of his head. "Don't do yours and we're going to have problems."

    John Wilson, the 34-year-old heir apparent to the Fire Authority's world of helicopter maintenance, shakes his head and smiles. Here we go again. Along with helping perform the daily mini-miracles that keep the Fire Authority's two 1966 Super Huey Bell helicopters up and running, it falls to Wilson to kick Goss under the table when his passion runs a bit too high when he's talking to the chiefs.

    Their system – more father and son than supervisor and employee – is unspoken, but it works.

    The two-man operation is hidden away miles from the Fire Authority's Irvine headquarters at the Fullerton Municipal Airport. Like oversized sardines, the two helicopters are sandwiched into the aluminum hangar, tail to nose. Paint touchups are done around the corner – quickly and quietly.

    No one would mistake it for a fancy place. It's not. A few years ago, a gust of wind peeled the hangar's roof right off. It still leaks. On some days the temperature dips into the thirties.

    And there's work to do. Helicopter maintenance for the Fire Authority has come in the form of daily marvels since Goss got the program off the ground in 1999. Goss, like his helicopters, did his time in Vietnam – fixing military helicopters for the Army.

    A ringer with 22 years experience at San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, Goss was recruited to bring the Fire Authority to the air.

    Bought from the U.S. military, the two aging helicopters have weathered the years, soldiering through thousands of miles – feats made possible with tender-loving care from Goss, and now Wilson.

    Hands with years of experience running through their veins trace the helicopter's tail, Goss' fingers and eyes searching for the tiniest sign of corrosion or weakening.

    The tail has been removed. The ship has been stripped and gutted; its insides are spread out across the hangar for the entire world to see.

    "The more you do it the more you know what to look for," Goss said. "You have to be right the first time because there might not be a second."

    The yearly ritual – a delicately timed overhaul squeezed in between the fire season months – keeps the airships battle-ready. But in California, fire season is a harsh reality. It never stops. The patching, restoring and refurbishing is done quickly but methodically. Good enough isn't good enough. Somehow all the parts make it back to their rightful place.

    Pieces and parts are cobbled back together. A helicopter reappears.

    "These helicopters belong to me and to John," Goss said. "They're ours. It's personal pride. We know we're taking care of our people."

    Last October, the Super Hueys fought wicked Santa Ana winds to make the first water drops on the Santiago Fire. When flames forced a dozen Fire Authority firefighters to huddle under their emergency fire shelters and pray they would walk out, the helicopters made six water drops to protect them. The firefighters all escaped. The helicopters – and their crews – went back to the fire fight.

    At Fire Authority Station 41, Goss is the money man. Parts for an aging UH-1H are hard to come by, but he drives a hard bargain. He's not going to fork over $12,000 on a chunk of metal with a few holes drilled in it. If he can find it for $9,000, he will. If he can make it himself, he does.

    "We do a lot more than turn wrenches," Goss said.

    A tiny bottle of aspirin sits on his desk – next to a stack of invoices and repair manuals.

    Every weekend, Goss spends hours cruising through the desert in a 1986 Corvette – fire hydrant yellow. He works in Fullerton. Every weekend he drives, just to get to Jackie, his bride of 40 years. They live in Lake Havasu, Ariz.

    He used to park his fifth wheel trailer in a rented spot at Travelers World in Anaheim. Then he settled down in a borrowed patch of driveway at a friend's house in Rancho Cucamonga. And when the work days are extra long, he lays his head down on a cot at the hangar.

    "If he didn't enjoy what he is doing so much, it wouldn't be worth it," said Jackie Goss. "But he does. It's worth it."

    Not many of the Fire Authority brass have ventured down to Station 41 to check out the air operation. And that's just fine with Goss. He doesn't need a bunch of yo-yos telling him how to take care of his helicopters. He's been taking care of them for years just fine, thank you very much.

    That operation is about to double. Two brand-new Bell 412 helicopters – to the tune of $24 million – will roll off the assembly line and into the already crowded Fire Authority hangar early next year. Where they will park is still being worked out. Plans for a brand new helicopter hangar are in the works – but are still years and millions of dollars away.

    Wilson was the mechanic next door, in charge of the California Highway Patrol helicopters. A one-man army in charge of the CHP fleet, Wilson earned the respect – and the interest – of Goss.

    Goss's program was expanding. He was missing more and more days with his wife – and their three grandchildren. He needed someone he could trust to take over and adhere to his sky-high standards. Four years ago, he went after Wilson – a former Marine who left Cleveland for sunny Camp Pendleton and a six-year stint as a jarhead. Wilson, the father of a little boy, signed up.

    Retirement hangs on the horizon for Goss, a date he keeps pushing back as it creeps closer. Wilson, young, but experienced, patiently waits in the wings to take over, juggling helicopter schools with Little League practice and driving range practice with his 6-year-old son, Jonathan.

    He knows it will be hard for Goss to leave the program he built. Goss knows it too.

    "I love working on aircraft. I'm going to do it until my knees go out and the back goes out. My golf game will tell me when that happens."

    Contact the writer: 714-769-7829 or [email protected]

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  2. wilbur1

    wilbur1 Active Member

    Nov 4, 2007
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    Wow great story :D :D
  3. RabidAlien

    RabidAlien Active Member

    Apr 27, 2008
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    Hurst, Texas
    :salute: Rock on, guys! :salute:

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