Polishing the Leading Edge

On a lonely night long ago, your friendly neighborhood author was a tough, no-nonsense Crew Chief tasked with a mundane yet important task: polishing the leading edge of a Gulfstream IV aircraft at Andrews Air Force Base, MD. Pull up a chair and sit a spell, as I tell a tale of an ancient ritual long dead…

As you twist and contort in a vain effort to pull the white cotton coveralls over your uniform, a passerby would be forgiven for wondering whether you were performing a new modern dance routine, or trying to remove a knife from the middle of your back. After a few awkward hip thrusts, a dislocated shoulder, and some cracked ribs, you finally get the bunny suit on and velcro the damn thing closed.

Next come the gloves. Some will wear the yellow playtex gloves, but you’re a Nitrile Man. The flimsy blue gloves will rip, tear, and disintegrate at a moment’s notice, providing perfect masculine protection for your hands, because you shouldn’t even be wearing goddamn gloves in the first place.

You pull the painter’s mask over your mouth and don the science class goggles. In a future time and place, you’d be ready to cook meth, but this is Andrews Air Force Base in the Year 2000. You’re here to buff and polish the chrome-plated leading edge of a Gulfstream IV aircraft wing. It’s like Top Gun, but without the fighter jets, buff dudes, and homoerotic subtext (spoiler alert: it’s still there).

With the sound of your breath booming inside the mask and your movement constrained by the bulky white bunny suit, you pretend you’re on the lunar surface and slowly pick the air hose off the floor and connect it to the pneumatic buffer. You tie a white cotton rag over the twin counter-rotating heads. But why? Left naked and bare like common streetwalkers, the exposed buffing pads would cause swirls to appear on the chrome–an egregious offense only slightly less worse than getting hopped-up on mescaline and killing a Dominican prostitute. That can be covered up, but not the swirls on the chrome.

You suggestively insert two fingers into the can of Flitz, scoop out some of the paste, and place a couple of dollops over the center of each buffing pad. Now, it should be said that there is some debate in buffing polymer selection. Some people swear by Eagle One, their belief being that it’s a liquid and liquid is always better than paste, but these are silly people whose leading edge chrome is dull and unimpressive. In a more civilized age, they would’ve been flayed alive and their skins hung on the city walls as their heretical beliefs were stamped out with brutal finality, but in these degenerate times you merely agree to disagree.

The grand preparations complete, you press the industrial buffer onto the chrome and squeeze the handle. It immediately bucks, 18 pounds of cast stainless steel fighting your efforts to keep it in place as the surface instantly turns black as night. You stop, let out a sigh, and look down the leading edge. Your goal is the wingtip all the way at the end of the wing. It might as well be a mile away.

It’s going to be a long night.

You settle into a steady rhythm. There’s modern rock playing over the hangar’s speakers, but you can’t hear it over the whine of the buffer. From this point forward, you will not look ahead to see how far you have to go, nor look back to see how far you’ve come. To do so would be to invite despair or fatigue. There’s only the two square feet of chrome in front of you that you polish until the inky black paste disappears and the dull chrome begins to reveal itself again. You stop only to periodically change the rag on the buffer and apply more Flitz to it. Always more Flitz. Always.

You enter an altered state of mind, as the buffer’s noise completely overwhelms your hearing, the goggles severely reduce your vision, and your breathing forms a steady, audible tempo determining your pace. While in this fugue state you will inevitably remember that if you were back in the Real Air Force, you wouldn’t be doing this powder-puff bullshit. You’d be out there turning wrenches, launching planes, and puzzling over the electrical mysteries of a system designed by a contractor who made a healthy donation to their local Congressman in return for the award of the contract.

You know, real Crew Chief shit.

Instead you’re stuck in this warm, well-lit hangar for the entire night performing a mindless and ultimately meaningless task. After the first flight, this entire leading edge will be covered with the remains of various insect species who came into sudden contact with its surface during the aircraft’s descent to the runway. Sure, you’ll clean the guts and wings off with windex and quickly polish it with some Brasso, but it’ll never look as good as it does right now.

The gleaming finish that you’re hoping to attain will be appreciated by only a handful of people for just a few hours. Your main hope, your most fervent wish, is that the morning sun will reflect off the highly reflective surface at the perfect angle just as someone important crosses the beam’s path, blinding them with the white, searing glare of our life-giving star and serving as an unmistakable testament of your pursuit of polishing perfection. They may not appreciate your work, but they damn sure will be affected by it.

Why are you even doing this? Because here, in this time and place, your mission is to provide an aesthetically and mechanically flawless aircraft to our leaders and their friends who want to fly on a fancy executive aircraft with “United States of America” blazoned across the fuselage.

Perfection is the standard. Acute attention to detail is the norm. It’s why you will spend countless hours crawling along the floor of the aircraft, picking fuzz out of the cheap carpet. It’s why you’ll probe the mysteries of various leathers, teasing out the secrets of several fabrics to better learn how to clean and repair scratches and tears. It’s why you will conduct rigorous, and possibly unnatural, experiments to see which wood cleaner provides the highest streak-free shine.

No one will appreciate the effort, especially not the friends of the First Daughter, who will decide to completely trash the interior of the aircraft on a flight back from the Sydney Olympics, causing thousands of dollars of damage that you’ll repair, replace, or restore in a matter of hours before the plane departs for its next mission.

At 0344, you finally reach the end of the wing. Your mouth tastes like metal and Flitz. Your goggles are covered with black dust and gunk. You remove the air hose from the buffer and toss it to the floor. It’s time to get out of this gear and clean-up before commencing Phase II: Empolishing.

After removing the blackened painter’s mask and goggles, you take the rag off your head and fight the overwhelming urge to wipe your face and make an already bad situation worse. Right now, quantum physics and surface tension conspire to ensure that the sweat on your skin is held in a state of quantum uncertainty. Should this state be disrupted, the waveform will collapse and the inky black residue on your face will form gushing torrents of ichor that will envelop your entire uniform and exposed skin. With paranoia from the X-Files still fresh in people’s minds, you’ll either be shot or taken to a secret facility to be dissected and studied, while your family will be informed that you were killed during a training accident. They will be thanked on behalf of a grateful nation.

On the way to the latrine, you run into a Stew(ard) in the hallway. He’s loading case after case of various liquors onto a rolling conveyer that goes out the door to a truck waiting just outside.

“You guys got a long mission or something?”

The Stew, noting your apparent starring role in a revival of Al Jolsen’s The Jazz Singer, replies, “Nah, it’s only for three days.”

The conclusion is obvious: this VIP is a straight-up baller. Seemingly reading your thoughts, the Stew says, “It’s not for him, it’s for us.”

Oh, it’s that guy. Most VIPs, like Hillary or Tipper, tend to have the same crews flying them around; however, this VIP is the equivalent of pulling latrine duty. He’s the 89th Airlift Wing’s dirty job. Nobody wants it, but everyone has to do it. You’re not sure what maneuvering and gamesmanship happens in the background to keep from getting assigned to this VIP, but you’re sure that the machinations on Survivor would pale in comparison. This VIP is not just detested, he’s universally reviled.

You nod and say something to extract yourself from the conversation, so you can get to the latrine. The urge to claw at your face to get the gunk off is almost overwhelming.

You bust open the door to the latrine and enter with grim purpose. Scooping a massive bolus of pumice soap from an obscenely large orange bucket, you immediately close your eyes and furiously scrub your face, never bothering to look in the mirror. You can feel the pumice tearing off layer after layer of skin. Your pores scream for relief, but like a medieval monk, you know that only through pain can you truly be cleansed.

You scrub until you’re sure that nothing of your former epidermis remains. You splash water over your face until it feels safe to open your eyes. You look down and see the last remnants of black goo slowly oozing down the drain. The interior of the sink is now a uniform gray and as you look into the mirror, so is your skin. You look like death warmed over.

You’ve been told that you’re the best of the best, and that your rock-solid reliability and commitment to excellence have earned you a coveted spot here among the elite. The lives of our nation’s leaders and their families depend upon your integrity, mechanical acumen, and unerring pursuit of perfection. It’s why you double-check, even triple-check, your work. After all, you’re an Aircraft Maintainer, not a pilot.

It’s not like you’d ever risk the life of the First Lady by flying through a severe thunderstorm cell, even though you’ve been advised to divert to another airfield, and then experience a microburst that nearly crashes the aircraft and kills all aboard.

You’re a Special Air Mission Aircraft Maintainer, you actually care about the safety of the people flying on your plane.

The devotion to the safety of your passengers is exceeded only by sheer disregard for your own personal well-being. It’s why, for some bizarre reason, you decide to keep towing a plane even though lightning is within five. Not five miles. Five yards.

Indeed, instead of doing as the checklist and the safety instructions advise, you accelerate and willingly exceed the maximum tow speed of five miles an hour (or the speed of the slowest walker) and just gun it for the hangar. This tow stops for no one, not even the angry god hurling lightning bolts in your vicinity.

This is a place where you’re not disciplined for deviating from the checklist (unless you actually damage something), but berated for believing you had to cease all operations just because some atmospheric discharges were nearby. Where the hell do you think you are, Base X? Son, this is Andrews: The Base That Time Forgot.

It’s 0413. You’re spreading commercial grade flour over the leading edge chrome and gently rubbing it in lazy circles. In addition to polishing the chrome, the flour will get into the pits in the leading edge, removing all of the remaining bits of blackened Flitz ensconced within them.

This is actually the fun part of the night. The dirty work’s done and as you progress, you can really see your efforts paying off as the dark spots and dull film disappear to reveal shiny chrome. In a few moments, you’ll tear open a burlap bale of cotton and start rubbing fistfuls of it over the leading edge.

This isn’t washed and refined cotton. It’s cotton in the raw: rough, sticky, and yellow. It’ll dust-off the remaining flour and polish the chrome to a high-quality shine. If you’ve done everything right, by the time you toss the last bit of cotton to the floor, the chrome will look like liquid metal. You’d only have to touch it with your finger to send ripples spreading throughout the rest of the leading edge.

A little over a year from now, after a botched election and a major terrorist attack, civilian contractors will witness this ritual and scoff that none of this is in their contract.

They might as well be speaking Esperanto. The words have no meaning to you. Oh, sure, everyone in the Air Force talks tough about how they’re “not going to do that shit” but two hours later, they’re always out there doing that shit. These contractors, however, are serious.

What the hell are these people even doing here, anyway? This is a specially manned unit. You actually need to prove yourself to be here. Not just anyone can waltz in and start turning wrenches. Can they?

And yet, here stand your eventual replacements, civilians right off the streets. A few are former military, but most were not in the Air Force, so poor decision making is already evident. Some of them haven’t even worked on a fixed-wing aircraft. And yet, here they are, providing a running commentary of what is and what is not in their contract. They look and speak like…civilians. It’s enough to make your skin crawl.

How did it come to this? For all the talk of values–honor, duty, and sacrifice–it turns out that values have no value, because no value can be placed on them. The decision to replace you with civilian contractors was simple: the number in cell D3 on an Excel sheet was a little bit less than the amount in cell D4.

How do you quantify pride? What’s the ROI of sacrifice? If they can’t be measured, they don’t exist, and a spreadsheet calculates the only things that matter in this world.

In this case, the spreadsheet said it would be cheaper to inactivate the 89th Aircraft Generation Squadron and replace it with civilian contractors. That’s how they came to be standing on your hangar floor mocking your work. Well, that and hefty cash contributions to key Congressmen by defense contractors. After all, isn’t it fitting for the aircraft maintainers to be the servants of those whom the Congressmen serve?

But all of that is still in the future. It’s 0706 and the day shift is filtering in. They’re hauling heavy white buckets and carrying sponge mops to wax the aircraft to a high-gloss shine. Your illusions are still secure and intact. You allow yourself a little bit of pride as others admire your work. You feel so good you even overlook the one asshole who always says it’s not as good as his. It doesn’t matter. The sun’s up, your shift’s done, and that leading edge looks better than the day it rolled off the assembly line.

Tomorrow night, you’ll probably swap out a potable water tank, change an aircraft tire, or troubleshoot the ever-popular “cabin smells like rotten eggs” problem, whose root cause typically comes down to someone farting during a flight and failing to own up to it. Their panicked silence will result in a $2000 air/water separator change, because in Washington, DC, a costly fiction is always preferable to an embarrassing truth.

Aircraft image courtesy of Aero Icarus, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License. It has been cropped to fit the header of the page.