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Flight line mechanics at Robins Air Force Base cope with the heat

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE -- The functional test area at Robins is no place for anyone who can’t handle the heat.

Not only do the mechanics there work outside over a vast expanse of concrete that reflects the sun’s rays back at them, but they often work around a giant plane with its engines running.

After months of overhaul maintenance is performed on a plane, the functional test unit thoroughly checks every component before the plane has a test flight.

Aircraft mechanics Lee Harris and Sean Witt, who do functional tests on the C-17, won’t try to tell you they have the hottest job in Middle Georgia, or even at the base.

“It’s a lot better than being on that roof over there,” Harris said, motioning toward workers replacing the roof on a hangar.

They aren’t especially envious of mechanics who work inside hangars either. While those mechanics get the benefit of a roof to block the sun and a place to plug in a fan, it can get pretty hot in the hangars, too. Harris and Witt said it suits them just as well to be outside in the fresh air.

They are not alone in that sentiment. Lately some of the mechanics who ordinarily work in hangars have been temporarily working in the functional test area.

“So far every single one of them has wanted to stay out here with us,” Witt said.

The base issues flag warnings for heat daily. Locations around the base, as well as computer monitors and some vehicles, display the current flag status. Black flag is the worst. It comes with a recommendation that strenuous outside work be limited to 10 minutes.

In recent years the base has built canopies on the flight line to help protect those working on smaller planes like the C-130 and F-15. The C-5 and C-17 are too big for canopies.

Tim McGregor, compliance manager for 402nd Maintenance Group, worked on planes outside for 15 years before getting an office job. There were no canopies then, and heat safety practices have come a long way.

“200 percent,” is how he summed up how much better it is now. “There was no flag, no work time limits when I started. There weren’t any tents.”

All three agreed that one of the best advances is that mechanics are now allowed to wear shorts. Pants used to be required for safety reasons, but a couple of years ago it was decided that shorts were OK.

The men also all agreed they prefer the summer to winter, because there is nothing on the flight line to block the wind on a cold January day.

Tech Sgt. Marty Shorter, who works in the 78th Medical Group, goes around the base doing presentations on avoiding over exposure to heat. Among the things he stresses are staying hydrated and watching out for warning signs such as cramps and not sweating.

He said it’s important for people to stop outdoor activity before symptoms become serious.

“Once you have a heat stroke, there’s no coming back from that because at that point it becomes very life threatening,” he said.

One common problem he sees is people who stay out late drinking and then try to get up the next day and do strenuous activity in the heat.

The flag warnings are based on the wet bulb globe temperature, which is a formula that takes into account the actual temperature, humidity, wind speed and radiant heat. A wet bulb globe temperature of 90 will bring the black flag.

Shorter said that while the flags are guidelines for civilians, military personnel are forbidden from doing physical training during a black flag.

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