Thursday, August 29, 2013

Lightening the Level

I just finished a "historical novel" about the Viet Nam War.  One theme that was very well developed was how the troops were often able to get the job done, despite "The System".  As the author, a retired USAF Lt Col so aptly noted, Mr MacNamara's Ford Motor Company mathematical models often didn't provide the logistical and maintenance needs of the units on the battlefield.  Thus, "GI ingenuity" was often required to get the job done.

I identified with what the author was saying, as in Viet Nam, as well in later years, I found that one often had to devise "legitimate" (or seemingly so) ways to get the job done in spite of "The System".

One example was the Army's allocation of maintenance to Unit, Direct Support, General Support and Depot levels.  Our Chinook unit was authorized to do Unit and Limited Direct Support Maintenance.  The Direct Support Maintenance unit that was tasked to provide support beyond our needs was at the other end of the airfield and supported a variety of units on our base and four others.  Their workload was significant.  While a unit could somewhat manage the flying hours it placed on its aircraft to stagger out the timing of scheduled maintenance tasks and accomplish a modicum of maintenance control, the Direct Support Unit had no control over the scheduling of hours by the supported units.  Thus if a unit mismanaged their flying hour distribution, they would turn the aircraft in to DS for them to handle major inspections and component changes - often several at a time.

Our unit did an amazing job of scheduling, and thus, we never turned aircraft in to DS.  In fact, we had production control so fine tuned, we had the manpower to exceed our "Limited DS" authorization.  However, we also knew that exceeding our Limited DS "off the books" would deny the Army the data to properly know the man hours and parts required to maintain the total fleet, yet we couldn't record doing maintenance we weren't authorized to do, and the DS unit didn't need the additional work.

So, since our Maint Officer and the DS unit CO were flight school buddies, they worked out a deal.  We kept him appraised of the "extra" DS work we did, and dutifully filled our DA Form 2407s (Maintenance Work Request) for that work, showing his unit as having done the work.  Thus, manhours and parts were dutifully reported to Aviation Systems Command, allowing them to keep the support requirements for Chinooks accurate and up to date.  We did "above level" component repair this way as well.  We kept our fleet flying without the uncertainty of when DS could do a job and get the ship or component back to us, the DS unit had a somewhat more manageable burden, and the database was accurate, except for the level at which the work was really done.  However, that "inaccuracy" was of minor consequence, as it simply showed a higher demand for DS manhours, which would ultimately increase DS TOE staffing, if possible.

Fast forward nearly 20 years, and I am now an airfield commander at a post with civil service facility engineer support.  The airfield lighting system would occasionally need bulbs replaced.  Rather than bother the Facility Engineers for the on-call night electrician to drive 3 miles out to the airfield to do the work, I had soldiers qualified and willing to do it.  Made much more sense. But then, the post came under review for contracting out facility engineer support, and in order to develop the statements of work to be placed in the request for bids, ALL facilities engineering work for a year had to be documented, or the contractor, if one was awarded, could claim extra compensation for work outside the scope of the contract.  And, of course, my successor could not be expected to handle lighting repairs as "self-help" simply because my troops and I were willing.

So (again), calling on what I learned in VN, I made a deal with the Facilities Engineer.  We had three replacement bulbs on hand "off the records".  When my troops changed a bulb, they would fill out a DA 2407 the next morning and it would be documented that a facilities engineers electrician changed the bulb, a new bulb would be "requisitioned" to replace the one from our "off the record" stock, and the manhours and parts would be dutifully recorded, so that the Work Statements that would be bid on accurately reflected what the contractor would typically have to do to support airfield lighting.  Turns out that the post received a major mission change, and all that work was set aside and contracting out was dropped, but at least our data was "accurate".

So, we have a good sprinkling of vets here.  I offer this as a topic that can be uplifting and fun.  Heaven knows, the "news of the day" stuff is far from uplifting.

I thus ask all to belly up to the bar and share some of your "GI Ingenuity" war (and peace) stories.  I know there are many, and we all deserve a break.


  1. Sadly, most of them would feature the sort of ingenuity my troops in Panama displayed making a ginormous hookah out of a discarded M-72 launcher, a bunch of surgical tubing, and some odd bits of hardware. It was actually a pretty shitty hookah but it LOOKED cool.

    Actually, I CAN thing of one; Cann Point.

    By the time I ran an ambulance section the Army had stopped all purchases of the M792 GAMA Goat ambulance. In it's infinite wisdom it ALSO stopped purchasing spare parts. Most minor and all major parts were just not available through the PLL system.

    So my medics and I became experts at U-pull-it wrenching over at the Cannibalization Point outside Ft. Clayton. About once a month we'd drive over loaded with jacks, wrenches, hammers, a tripod, block and tackle. Anything short of an actual power pack? We could yank it, stash it, and stuff it in our CONEX.

    I actually feel sorry for whoever was "me" when the time came to un-ass Ft. Kobbe, because I'll bet the poor SOB was a a loss to figure out how to unload a container full of useless GAMA Goat parts...

  2. Al - For myself I cannot claim any of your unique way of beating the 'system' while still keeping the system's information requirements happy. My experiences were more typical. Just about every unit I ever served with used some type of cumshaw to get needed material. I was once upbraided by a field grade for trying to make the system responsive instead of working under the table. In Vietnam we repurposed weapons & equipment abandoned by other units or by Charlie. But I never did go to the dark side and 'appropriate' property from another unit or another service. Institutional theft it was called, as I am sure you recall, or midnight requisitions. UPLs (unauthorized parts lockers) were popular - even though they probably messed up the supply system worse than it was.

    There are some stories out there though about some genuine GI ingenuity. This one below was told by Brute Krulak as retold to me by a golfing buddy.

    After WW2 the Navy at Point Mugu inherited several hundred V1 buzz bombs and with help from a Ford-Aerospace predecessor (Philco-Ford?) were attempting to rework them to be launched and radar guided from submarines. They were not having good results coming anywhere near test targets based on 1] the inherent inaccuracy of the subs navigation system, 2] the limitations of the subs radar and 3] when over the target the motor was cut off so it fell as a dumb bomb. So landing within a mile of the target was the best they could do at the time. There were several Marines at Point Mugu, including pilots and electronic technicians, who had been sent there for schooling to learn about guided missiles. One of the pilots was asked if it was possible for a small landing party of Marines to take over control of the missile in the final phase. He organized the others to look at the problem on their off duty time. They built a homemade computer for a control system but after trying several things, they realized no radar in existence at that time could be landed from a sub. Epiphany came to them when they realized they could use their control system to control the autopilot of an aircraft as if it was the V1 missile and then get pinpoint accuracy dropping bombs at night or during foul weather or IFR conditions. They later adapted it so that their ground control system could also actuate the bob release mechanism. This was the start of the Marine Corps' ability to have all weather Close Air Support. It took a lot more work but was fielded in the Korean conflict. By the time of Vietnam they had it down pat. The troops at Khe Sanh had the benefit of round the clock Close Air Support to within 50 to 100 yards of their positions even during monsoon weather conditions.

    Now I know that ground controlled bombing was pioneered in Europe (Germany?), and that the USAF preceded the Marine Corps effort. But none of those systems had the accuracy of this system put together by some part timers without any funds or directives from the Pentagon or Quantico. The system is now sadly obsolete with all the new developments in smart-bombs, IR, and GPS.

  3. To be honest, not all our maintenance in VN made it into "the books". We had a graduate electrical engineer who was drafted, scored high on his tests, and thus was sent to aircraft hydraulics school Of course). Arrived at our unit, and when the Maint NCOIC saw his 201 file, asked him if he wanted to work in hydraulics or would he rather work in avionics. Kid said he'd work wherever he was most needed. After a bit more interviewing, it was apparent that, with the necessary parts and diagnostic tools, the kid could do depot level work.

    Avionics was a major backlogged issue, as there was only a modest amount we were authorized to do at unit level, and items just kept getting pushed up the support chain for repair. Thus, it was generally feast or famine for certain components.

    For parts, the guy developed all sorts of sources, to include MARS calls back to CONUS to buddies at Litton Industries, where he had worked for a year before being drafted. They would mail him all kinds of stuff. He got electronic components, oscilloscopes, signal generators and the like from the Air Force in trade for some jump seat time in our Chinooks on "real combat missions". The pilots would list them in the log book as "Technical Observers" and give them a Thermopfax copy for their memoirs. Within 2 months, the guy was up and running, and our avionics were in marvelous shape. Also provided a modest amount of support to the other three companies in our Bn. He extended his tour in VN by 4 months until the end of his 2 year obligation.

    Since much of the work he did was only authorized at depot level, it was not possible to get it all on the records, as a working arrangement with the depot was just not in the cards. However, the kid did discover a design weakness in one nav radio system, and used his buddies at Litton to backchannel it to college buddies at Collins Radio, as there was no way he could explain via "proper channels" how he discovered it. Collins "discovered" the issue, a depot mod was put in place, and all units going to depot got the mod, so in a way, we still contributed to "The System" even if it had to be done in the stealth mode.

    BTW, in later years, our Maintenance Officer, then a brand new MAJ, went on to Command the Aviation Maintenance Depot at Corpus Christi, the highest level maintenance command in the Army.

  4. I flew light attack (A-29) with the Navy. We were on less than a shoestring budget and had to learn to build/load bombs the old school way (by hand). We had a simply outstanding CPO who taught a bunch of pilots, WSOs and maintainers how to do 6 man lift with GBU-12s. Fast forward 2 years I'm teaching at the USAF Weapons School in Nellis. Troops are standing around an F-15E that is most certainly less than fully loaded with the fragged ord of GBU-12s.

    "What's the deal?" say I.

    "Jammer's broke" say they. (A jammer is a low forklift that loads weapons.)

    "I happen to be positive GBU-12s can be loaded by hand" say I.

    Well a second jammer was called in, but I think it shook them up to know that someone remembered that bombs can be loaded by hand. Call this experience a draw.

  5. During a night occupation, we used to mark the routes for our gun tractors with mine tape (white tape that could be followed in the dark of night). The mine tape had to be picked up before dawn and then rolled up. Often twigs and stuff would get wound up in the tape and you ended up with a gordian clump of mine tape and foliage, instead of a nice roll.

    One of our TSMs got tired of yelling at the gun sergeants to organize their mine tape before the next night occupation. Instead, he gave each gun number detailed for the night occ a roll of bumwad.

    This worked really well. Unless it rained hard between the recce and the occupation.

  6. In terms of off the books parts exchange, the strangest I saw was when a party from my mech inf battalion found some odd but new-looking object in the dump. An officer had somebody look through the catalogs to find out what they were. They turned out to be brand-new mint condition sights for Vulcan automatic cannon (IIRC, $16K each). The officer called up the local Vulcan unit, and swapped them one-for-on for compasses ($20 each), so that a friend would have a complete inventory for the annual inspection.

    Never was so much traded for so little.

  7. Slightly off topic, but still somewhat germane.

    What to do with old Marine helicopters?

    Crash test dummies!


  8. " just finished a "historical novel" about the Viet Nam War. "

    What was the name of the novel?

  9. Al,
    In 70 we couldn't get Claymores as a unit issue. For some reason they were scarce and we had a 2 priority=combat essential.
    Anyway a AF friend told me he'd give me a goodly amount if i'd send a truck to pic them up.
    When they arrived they were all set in cement in coffee cans.
    We swapped then out with those in our perimeter and then we had units to issue to the teams.
    If my memory is correct we could also requisition component parts but not the complete set.
    The AF , i think, never used a claymore without cement.
    Whatever the case i always thought this to be a strange way to run a war.

  10. Makes sense; it's harder to casually flip those - how hard does the wind blow in tropical storms?

  11. Barry-

    Rolling Thunder, by Lt Col Mark Berent, USAF (Ret)

    He makes a few chronological and terminology errors, but they don't detract from the main thrust of the story, which is the human element. The ending was a bit cliche, but overall, it was a fairly good read, especially as a free e-book. :-)

    1. "Rolling Thunder, by Lt Col Mark Berent, USAF (Ret)"


  12. Al -

    Berent's book sounds good. I will check it out. Another good read on Rolling Thunder is 'To Hanoi and Back', non-fiction and also covering Linebaker. It was written by Wayne Thompson, an Air Force historian. I believe there is a free e-version (pdf?) at

    He tries to adhere to the USAF line but I did not think that he pulled any punches. I would like to hear others opinions on that.

  13. Since I mentioned the airfield (actually heliport) lighting system above, it's worth mention of how we got it installed. The actual "airfield" in "writing" was a pair of WWII grass landing strips. With the advent of helos, the post simply closed a road along the edge of the airfield area, designated two landing points and that was that. Helo parking was on a sod area, adjacent to that road. This worked fine for years, as the post, Ft Chaffee, AR, was primarily a NG and reserve training site, but when I arrived in 1982, the active Army was beginning to deploy leg, airborne and SOF (we had a very useable drop zone) units there to take advantage of the post's excellent terrain, as well as the millions of acres of national forest nearby. In fact, while I was there, Chaffee became the original site of the Army's Joint Readiness Training Center, which was later moved to Ft Polk by BRAC.

    Proper airfield lighting is expensive, as it requires a sophisticated voltage management system and multiple remote control access points. In short, the control and management system was far more expensive than the lighting assemblies themselves. For night operations, we simply had to use beanbag, battery operated tactical light.

    HOWEVER, my Safety Officer, conspiring with our Facilities Engineer discovered a "loophole" in the regulations. If an existing "helicopter alighting area" (an informal designation) were to be re-designated or incorporated into a "heliport or airfield" , any installed lighting system could be retained, as installed, if "functionally", it met the luminosity and control access requirements of the regulation.

    Well, the "helicopter alighting area" was not part of the WWII designated airfield, a simple and understandable oversight, as it wasn't really important to do so. So, the Facilities Engineer designed and installed normal airport lighting fixtures without all the complicated and expensive constant current transformers and control relays. For control purposes, he installed BSR home lighting controllers, and by having a control unit available in the tower, airfield operations office and crash rescue, that covered that "functionality". Additionally, we gave MEDEVAC a BSR controller, as they occasionally had to launch at night when all other airfield facilities were closed.

    The system worked like a champ, and "functionally", could not be distinguished from a "by the book" system costing at least 10- 20 X as much. It was all done with locally authorized facility maintenance and minor renewal funds, whereas a "normal" lighting system would have requires TRADOC level approval and funding, if not DA. We were even able to get the MO ARNG (more about them in a bit) to do the construction of the 30 or so subsurface concrete vaults for the lights as a training project, and they did a whale of a job.

    A month or so after the system was installed and working, we filed the regulatory paperwork with the Army and FAA to "close" Chaffee Army Airfield, and re-designate our "helicopter alighting area" and adjacent support facilities as "Chaffee Army Heliport". All the ramp and service facilities, which had never officially incorporated into the "airfield", were now included into the newly designated "heliport".

    (to be continued)

  14. (Cont)

    I mentioned the MO ARNG's role in our budget lighting system. Our Facilities Engineer was from MO, and knew a lot of the senior officers in the MO ARNG from his school days. He had chosen Chaffee as his final duty station before retirement to be close to ailing parents in MO.

    One of his friends in the MO ARNG was bemoaning how their Engineer units basically did little more than dig ditches and fill them back in during Annual Training. Our FE asked if they would like 'real" construction projects, knowing that not only would that provide "free labor", but training funds would pay for much of the materials. The MO ARNG Bde Cdr loved the idea, and our FE developed a long list of construction work (concrete, framing, electrical, plumbing) that could be broken into two week company level tasks. For the next few years, the MO ARNG units did all sorts of construction work at Chaffee, meeting both MOS and tactical standards. Amazing to see a platoon in full chemical protective gear laying concrete or framing in an interior structure!

    Among the needs at the heliport were a proper crash crew and MEDEVAC station. Using a HUGE WWII tracked vehicle maintenance building, the MO ARNG simply built these facilities within the building by framing, wiring and plumbing the necessary rooms. Great experience and excellent results.

    A year or so later, GEN Richardson, TRADOC Commander, came to Chaffee to give it a look see for the JRTC project. We all had been under very clear guidance that all cost estimates for the JRTC were to be carefully made to preclude the over runs experienced at Ft Irwin. His TRADOC Engineer had looked at the FORSCOM "Mob Plan" (Chaffee was a designated post for general mobilization) from three years earlier, and had estimated the vast expense involved in "upgrading the airfield" to necessary standards. During the general inbriefing, the TRADOC Engineer, a pompous COL who was a basic naysayer, had said it was beyond the JRTC budget to use the heliport. The Post Commander simply said to Richardson, "Sir, I know that our Aviation Officer will put those issues to rest when he briefs you at the heliport." Of course, we knew the difference between FORSCOM's "Mob Plan" and the realities of our upgrades over the past three years.

    To make a long story short, Richardson was amazed at what we had done with limited local labor, post funds funds and ARNG help. All we needed to meet the final "functional" operational standards was to inclose the crash truck bay in the old vehicle maintenance building, heat and air condition it, and install a proper electrically operated exit door. He laughingly told the TRADOC Engineer something like, "Well, COL, perhaps you won't be so trusting of FORSCOM estimates in the future (no love lost between the two commands and their commanders). See what we can do to get the post some extra self help money to continue their program. They seem to be able to multiply it quite handily."

  15. The primary purpose of the Urban Aero Systems is to introduce cutting-edge aerospace technologies, while having its own modern infrastructure, with an experienced team in Aviation
    Inflatable Boats in India
    Fec Heliports