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Flight engineers – the enlisted fliers

A 153rd Airlift Wing profile

Note: This is the first in a periodic series of profiles of the various positions in the Wyoming Air National Guard’s 153rd Airlift Wing.

flight engineer
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michelle Huff, a flight engineer instructor assigned to the 187th Airlift Squadron, trains Tech. Sgt. Andrew Crips on aspects of being a flight engineer on April 9, 2019 at the 153rd Airlift Wing Air National Guard, Cheyenne, Wyoming. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Jon Alderman)

It is difficult to capture the essence of the enlisted flier within the confines of ink and paper.

Since 1955 the C-130 Hercules flight engineer has served as a liaison between officer and enlisted, maintenance and operations, earth and air. Most engineers were plucked from their jobs as aircraft maintainers to become career enlisted aviators. With them came a legacy of rough and rowdy, work-hard-play-hard ethics that fostered a culture of, “just get it done and don’t screw it up.” This is not a story about clean-cut, scarf-wearing gentlemen and women. This is a story about the dirty, sweaty, salty heartbeat of the mighty Hercules: The flight engineer.

In the center of the flight deck between the two pilots and navigator sits the flight engineer. From that seat, he or she has the ability to see all aircraft instruments, buttons and switches. He or she acts as the eyes and ears of the crew – including any loadmasters in the back of the aircraft – operating vital systems such as fuel, electrics and pressurization.

The FE assists with engine starts and performs operational checks on the ground and in-flight. The engineer acts as a conductor, skillfully orchestrating the flow of checklists and events happening in succession within the airplane.

On the ground, the engineer manually computes takeoff and landing data in addition to preparing the aircraft for flight, accomplishing a thorough visual inspection inside and out. He checks flight instruments, pumps, switches, valves and various other components. She works closely with crew chiefs and other aircraft specialists to prepare the airplane for the rest of the crew.

In flight, the FE is the central nervous system of the aircraft – listening, watching, smelling, feeling the aircraft propel through the sky. The most experienced engineers are able to hear the slightest deviation in the propeller’s sound or feel a change in vibration.

At times, an engineer is called to act as an orchestrator of emergency procedures. Often he is the voice of reason and the last line of defense in a series of unusual occurrences. She is trained extensively to handle complex situations inevitably encountered while flying a turbo-propelled aircraft. Many engineers can recall, at least one time in their career, when something on the aircraft malfunctioned and the feeling of all eyes on them looking for answers. Pilots rely on engineers to provide thoughtful and logical troubleshooting while they have a handful of airplane, so to speak.

The Wyoming Air National Guard’s 153rd Airlift Wing has a unique mission. In addition to tactical airlift, long-range, short-field missions and aeromedical evacuation capabilities, the wing is also capable of airborne firefighting. Every summer, a tank capable of holding 3000 gallons of fire retardant is loaded into the cargo compartment of the aircraft and the C-130 is called by the U.S. Forest Service to build fire lines in the defense of home and property against wildland forest fires throughout the country.

This particular mission reinforces the need of another set of eyes and another heartbeat inside the aircraft. Sight, sound and touch are the essence of good flying and essential for the success of such a dangerous and technical mission. The flight engineer provides an element of safety and reliability that cannot be replicated by a machine or computer.

There is no substitute for a well-trained engineer. However, with the advancement of technology comes the inevitable: change.

In 1998 the C-130J entered service as the next generation of C-130 aircraft. With the birth of a newer, more sophisticated aircraft came the death of the flight engineer. FEs are not required on C-130J’s. They don’t compute take-off and landing data by hand with a series of charts and calculations and all other FE functions have been absorbed by the other crew members. The flight deck is considerably lonelier with only two pilots and the occasional loadmaster.

However, currently the Wyoming Air National Guard’s pilots are spared of that loneliness. The 153rd Airlift Wing is keeping the C-130H, and its full crew, thus extending the life of the flight engineer in the Equality State, at least for now.

The enlisted aviator straddles the line of professionalism and mission success, for both may exist simultaneously but at a cost to one another. The salty, yet playful rancor of an old flight engineer is unparalleled.

In my opinion, you cannot truly fly a Herk without one because without a flight engineer, the airplane lacks a pulse. The C-130 flight engineer is your oldest friend who you’ve known since childhood – quick with a joke and a jab at the ribs while also lashing with the tongue and being brutally honest. The engineer tells you the truth about what is happening, in the moment, even when the truth is hard to hear.