The eight hour engine change (in the field)?
by Jim Attrill
The place is RAF Wildenrath, Germany, and the time is early 1971. The people are the personnel of No. 4 Squadron, the first Harrier squadron to be assigned to NATO. As the Harrier had been sold to the RAF and to NATO as an aircraft that could operate from temporary grass airfields, it was up to us, as the first RAF Germany Harrier squadron, to prove that the concept could work in practice. We had originally gathered some practical experience working with No.1 Squadron while we were at RAF Wittering, an exercise which was like the blind helping the blind as we were all new to the aircraft and its systems. The advantage we did have is that all of us had been on the technical courses for the aircraft at Hawker Siddeley and we engine fitters had been on course at Rolls-Royce Bristol Engine Division at Filton. As an aside, this last course was the best I ever attended, partly because it was very interesting and partly because they fed us every day in the director's dining room, even the non-NCO's (I was a Junior Technician at the time).
So early 1971 was taken up with learning about the Harrier generally, and getting used to the new things that we were expected to do and the new equipment we had to use. All our ground equipment was painted matt NATO Green. This was fine until some bright person realised that it had been bright yellow for a reason, so reflective strips were applied to stop us tripping over the stuff in the dark. Our transport also became green, which gave the place a rather 'Army' look compared to a normal RAF camp. Many of us went on truck driving courses and tests; I somehow missed out on these and remained a Land Rover driver only. We were issued with the normal NBC gear, funny at first but not so funny when you have to wear it. As a spectacle wearer I was told I would be issued with a set of glasses that would fit inside my gas mask. In the meantime I could not wear my normal glasses with my mask, so could do nothing at all with the mask on. We were issued with army-style combat clothing, which we all liked as it was more comfortable than the standard scratch issue clothing. Unfortunately at first we only had one set each which became a problem later, when we had to wear it for weeks at a time. We were even sent to a real army 400 meter firing range to fire SLR's, just like the pongoes! To everyone's amazement I came second out of the squadron firing at long ranges, while at the normal RAF distance of 25 meters I was hopeless.
So eventually the big day came when the powers that be decided we would have our first exercise "in the field". The white had been painted out of the roundels on the Harriers (but they were still mostly in shiny paint), we had tents, stoves, cooks, bottlewashers, TACR1 Land Rover fire engines, camp beds, sleeping bags and a gun each. So off we went, in convoy - to the other side of the airfield! The Harriers were put in revetments which had been made for Canberras in the '50s, instead of in the trees. Some had camouflage nets draped over them for that "warlike" look. Because it was so close, we cheated and towed our power sets there, though in practice they would be chained down in the back of a Bedford MK. Nobody had visualised the difficulty of getting these power sets of about two tons each into the back of the truck (and out again afterwards). Our tractor was confiscated as we could hardly be expected to drive it to Hamburg or wherever we were supposed to be.
And then our problems started. Firstly, unlike RAF personnel in the past, we were expected to lug a L1A1 SLR around with us all the time. Having no ammo made it a bit lighter, but the things are a pain in the neck. Also some bright person thought to enliven the proceedings by hitting the gas alarm every time an aircraft flew over, at which time we had to don full NBC clothing and wear gas masks. As we were next to the Wildenrath main runway, it was difficult to get much done, especially in my case, and that of the other visually deprived people. We had NATO observers, mainly commissioned officers of many nationalities including our own. They had the power to declare us "dead" if found without a gas mask or whatever, but soon found out that we would all rather be "dead" anyway and the squadron would have ground to a halt. So a few blind eyes were turned.
You may ask "so what has this to do with the 8 hour engine change (in the field)?" I am just trying to show the level of disorganisation that we had got to by early on Monday morning of the exercise. Another bright idea someone had was to split the ground crew into "teams" consisting of a mixture of various tradesmen under command of a Senior NCO of any trade. Each team had a radio, and we were taught elementary radio procedure. We were then expected to rush from one revetment to another and refuel and re-arm the Harrier we found there. Oh, I forgot to say that we had all been trained as armourers, at least as far as re-arming the aircraft. Even the aircrew were trained in simple tasks suitable to their intelligence such as refuelling and checking the oil. I had "trained" some of them in this and we all came to the conclusion that horses were better left to their own courses. It was all shades of 2 TAF in 1944/5 and maybe some of the planners had been there (just joking of course).
And then it happened. The "8-hour engine change" had been the bane of our lives ever since HS tried to prove to the world that the Harrier engine could be easily changed. They changed one with a crack team of mechanics in 8 hours, though there was no record of the aircraft flying immediately after. We were convinced that they had rushed the job, leaving off some of the more difficult wire locking and maybe other steps. I suppose a good team could actually do an engine change this quickly, but here we were up against the greatest design fault of the Harrier (and for all I know it is still the same): there are not enough inspection panels in the bottom of the fuselage. This means that a dropped spanner or nut (or even a shoe) can be impossible to remove, resulting in the engine having to be lifted out (again... again... again...). I personally had been involved in the marathon 3 week engine change at No. 1 Squadron the year before, where the engine went in and out like a yo-yo until everyone concerned was thouroughly sick of seeing it. The problem there was compounded by the fact that by the time the engine had been changed, most of the airframe had been "cannibalised" to keep the others going. Anyway, I digress.
For those who do not know how an engine is changed on a Harrier, it is a relatively easy procedure, though a bit strange. Firstly the whole aircraft is lifted up on trestles under the fuselage. The wing is removed. This sounds difficult but it is only held on by four bolts and a couple of fuel and electrical connections. We used to lift ours off using the "air-portable crane" of which more anon. Then the electricians and engine fitters would undo all the connections various, normally with one fitter underneath and two or three on top. The engine trunnions are basically two large bolts. The engine would be lifted out using the crane as for the wing. As they say in car manuals "reassembly is the reverse of removal". Then you do a full engine/nozzle test, followed by an air test. Sounds easy, yes? But there we would be with spanners tied to our overalls with string, waiting for the dreaded "clink clonk clink clonk" noise of a spanner or nut falling to the bottom of the fuselage. Then out would come the plastic hammers and we would knock the skin until we heard where the offending piece of hardware was sitting. As there were few panels underneath we would hope that it would be retrievable. As a left-hander with rather thin arms, I was often called in to try and solve this problem. But in many cases we would have to undo that which we had so laboriously achieved and start all over again. Most depressing.
Well, on this famous day the Powers had decided that we would prove that we could change an engine "in the field". We were on concrete, hardly a field, but we were doing this outside, a procedure unheard of in the RAF. To make things worse, we were not allowed to cheat by bringing our crane from the hangar. Instead, they gave us a crane in a box, brand new. This crane is actually a good piece of equipment, basically a square monocoque made in sections and held together with quick-release pins. It is light and easy to move about, having large wide tyres for use on grass (not that we ever did that). Two people winding on handles can winch an engine in and out. Overall, we much preferred the effort to calling the MT yard for a crane and driver.
So, we start putting the crane together. Initially this was fun, rather like Christmas. We end up with a big pile of bits and bolts. I presume there was some sort of manual/instructions. Anyway, someone had put the one together that we had in the hangar, so it couldn't be too hard. Now I must digress (again) into the nature of our jobs and the tools with which we worked. Although we were called "fitters" we were not actually allowed to "fit" anything. We were basically component changers. If a component did not fit, no attempt was made to make it fit, because either it was the wrong part, made incorrectly, or being fitted incorrectly. 'Fitting' parts would bring Murphy's law to the fore with parts being fitted upside down or backwards with detriment to safety. For this reason, our tool kit consisted of lots of spanners, socket sets, screwdrivers and special tools for various things. Tools like hammers were frowned on though available and anyone going near an aircraft with a file or a hacksaw would have most likely been shot at dawn. But this crane did not want to go together at all. And we would no sooner have figured out what part went where when the gas alarm would go off and we would have to charge away with our guns and gas masks to "defend" the area.
The NATO observers, who had been observing us, eventually got bored at all the swearing and cursing and left us to go and annoy someone else. By this time we had discovered that the only way to avoid interference by the Powers calling us up on the radio, was to delegate the role of radio operator to myself. As a smoker, I had discovered that answering any call while crumpling cellophane in the microphone and saying "hello hello I can't hear you", and turning the volume down while transmitting obviated any silly calls. By this time we were having a serious sense of humour failure with those sitting in a tent and "controlling" us. Luckily they were a long way away so could only send the occasional messenger with new batteries for the radio. Even a new radio which also didn't work very well. Well, I was an engine fitter after all.
The whole engine change exercise was doomed to failure from the start, for one reason. The HS employees who merrily changed an engine which didn't need changing were aware that they were taking part in a selling exercise for their own company (and protecting their jobs, eventually). We could see no reason to "change" a perfectly good engine just to keep some unnamed people happy. We certainly weren't and it was getting worse. By late afternoon we had finally succeeded in bludgeoning the crane together. So we got ready to take the wing off. We were secretly hoping that someone would put a stop to this idiotic exercise at this point.
The NATO inspectors reappeared, looking at their watches and looked quite pleased. They though we were putting the wing back on! When we told them that it had taken the whole team all day to put the crane together they looked rather disappointed and went off to tea or wherever they go to.
For the rest, I don't remember much. We worked away at getting the engine out, gas masks and all, and eventually did so. At about this point (maybe on Wednesday) we were assailed (literally) by some other Power's bright idea. As we had these guns and things, we would have to defend ourselves against a real assault.
There we were, merrily pretending to work, as by this time we had decided that this "engine change" was going to go down in the annals as something never to be repeated. (We had also heard via the grapevine that the pilots would not wish to air test it even if we did get it done.) It was now raining and our NBC clothing, already ripped and greasy from use as overalls, was now quietly shredding itself into the interior of the Harrier's engine bay. I was underneath the fuselage, connecting or disconnecting something or other, when there is the sound of gunfire. I looked out and was instantly shot dead by a whole lot of what we later found out were Belgian paratroopers.
And so to Friday. We eventually got the wing back on and towed the rather bedraggled looking Harrier back to the hangar. I went to bed and slept for 26 hours. The words "engine change in the field" were never uttered again. I think the powers learnt from that exercise that even an exercise has to be "real", so we always went out into fields in Germany after that. If we had had to change an engine out there in a wood I am certain we would have done it well.
Actually it didn't really matter as the aircraft would have had to be towed back anyway as the PSP arrangement for ground-running the Harrier was found to be unsafe and unusable. We used to joke about towing a Harrier home down the public roads, and it would have been possible in an emergency. After all, in a later exercise we used a bit of unopened autobahn as a runway with the Harriers parked at the pumps. Wonderful camouflage, but that's another story..
© 2003 Jim Attrill Cpl A. Fitt (P) 4 Squadron RAF 1970-73
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