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'Fill'er up': Kingsley's Fuel Troops Pump 7 Million Gallons

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jefferson Thompson
  • 173rd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
The whine of auxiliary power units and the roar of jet engines fill the air of the Kingsley Field flightline.

The noise begins when a small jet engine assembly called the JFS, or jet fuel starter, housed inside the F-15 is primed with fuel and ignited upon a signal from the pilot. An electric spark fires the oily air-fuel mixture turning the small engine and subsequently the central gear box. More fuel is poured into the small engine and the whine grows to a scream--supplying the power to turn the behemoth number two engine. The engine catches, howls to life and begins gulping fuel and air in the self-perpetuating process known as internal combustion that has powered machines for more than a century. As long as the fuel known as JP-8 travels through the right hoses and reaches the combustion chamber with precise timing and measurement then this jet and all the others stay aloft. The intricate process of keeping each Kingsley aircraft fueled and flight-ready begins long before the jets roar to life on the flightline.

The 173rd Fighter Wing's POL troops pump Kingsley's metaphorical lifeblood to every waiting F-15.

"We moved about seven million gallons of fuel last year," said Senior Master Sgt. Neal Rutter, the fuel shop supervisor.

The fuel itself is interesting in that it's been changed substantially over the years. Today's fuel, unlike modern automobile gasoline, isn't very flammable. JP-4 the precursor to modern jet fuel was thin, like white gas, the stuff used for camping stoves and lanterns and evaporated very rapidly. JP-4 was extremely flammable at any temperature above minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit. Rutter mentions that even shoes scuffing on the floor could release a potentially catastrophic spark. By contrast you can strike a match and hold it to JP-8 and it won't ignite, at least not until it reaches 110 degrees Fahrenheit, called the flashpoint, or the point where the petroleum begins to evaporate fast enough to sustain ignition. Rutter also adds that modern jet fuel contains less benzene, a potentially harmful substance. It's welcome news to this reporter who was wearing splashes of fuel in his hair and on his uniform at the time of the interview--but such is the nature of up close and personal photography.

Another interesting wrinkle in moving such large amounts of fuel is the way it expands and contracts depending on the temperature. Unlike water which doesn't change much until it is frozen, JP-8 expands and contracts significantly. Because of this, every time it is moved either from commercial tankers arriving on the base or being pumped into the waiting jet, in order to have an accurate measure of how much fuel is moved you must standardize the temperature at which you measure the volume, Rutter explains.

As an example if you fill a jet at 0 degrees Fahrenheit and it heats up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, 97 gallons of fuel would vent out of the jet onto the ground, or about enough to drive your vehicle to and from work for about three months.

So tracking the transactions of fuel becomes more complex because if this expansion went uncorrected for over the course of the year the magnitude of the accounting error could be in the millions of gallons.

"All the trucks have internal sensors that calculate the volume at 60 degrees Fahrenheit," Rutter explains, the standard temperature for fuel transactions everywhere.

In addition to standardizing every transaction to 60 degrees fuel troops also ensure it is pure. As the fuel makes its way to Kingsley's large storage tanks it travels through high-grade filters; in fact every time the fuel is moved it is filtered to remove any stray particulate.

Staff Sgt. James Hubbard walks out to the waiting fuel trucks and draws a small amount of fuel into a flask. In a room equipped with all manner of scientific instruments he pours the sample into an apparatus that forces exactly one gallon of fuel through a paper filter so fine the naked eye can't perceive its porousness. He then bakes the filter in a special oven for 30 minutes and weighs the resulting deposits to the nearest one, one-thousandth of a gram.

This ensures the fuel is clean enough to meet the rigors of powering a modern fighter aircraft.

Finally the jets are recovered with low fuel just returning from their respective missions. A waiting fuel truck sits ready to fill them for the next missions later that day or the next.

This process repeats itself again and again at Kingsley. Metaphorically it is well likened to the way a heart pumps blood to the extremities; the repeated cycles of replenishment sending fuel to thirsty aircraft, giving them new vitality for another mission.

Like the blood it sustains the function of the mission here and at any other flying wing.