USS HARRY S. TRUMAN, At Sea (NNS) -- Fighter Squadron (VF) 32 aviation structural mechanics performed their last 280-day inspection on their freshly painted F-14 Tomcat "show bird" by replacing and testing their ejection seats Feb. 27-28.
The squadron is preparing to say goodbye to the F-14 Tomcats as the squadron nears the end of their deployment embarked aboard USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) later this spring. VF-32 will transition to the F/A-18 Super Hornet in October.
While the Navy is planning to decommission the birds, it doesn't stop VF-32's aviation structural mechanics from completing maintenance with the same diligence and pride they have always had.
"It's to ensure the seat is going to work correctly if the pilot ever needs it," said Aviation Structural Mechanic 2nd Class (AW/SW) Travis Holland. "We start by, of course, de-arming the ejector seats and pulling them out. Then we break it down to what we call 'parade rest.' We do this to ensure it's going to work if the pilot ever needs it - to ensure he's going to live through a mishap."
Then, the aviation structural mechanics began an extensive two-day breakdown, maintenance, rebuild and test of both seats in the aircraft. Holland said this often requires extensive corrosion control and related maintenance, which will be substantially less for the Super Hornet, one of the advantages of upgrading to the platform.
"We check the time-release mechanisms for altitude to make sure the seat-man separation happens at the proper altitude when it's supposed to," said Holland.
The structural mechanics also remove explosive devices for the ejection itself, making sure they fire properly, and they test the release mechanism for yield, so it's not too difficult for the pilot to activate the seats if needed.
Since there aren't any new Tomcat pieces available to the squadron, discrepancies require all the know-how and craftsmanship of the mechanics to repair existing parts on site, and sometimes it takes a whole day to reassemble just one seat.
Once the work is finally done, the seats are craned into the waiting aircraft and fastened into place. Then they're inspected once more before the cockpit hatch lowers for good.
"Hopefully, we do all this work for nothing," said Holland, "but if we need it, we're going to make sure it's there to work."
While there are plenty of other such inspections to come with any aircraft fitted with ejector seats, the dwindling number of two-seaters begins to weigh on the minds of the Sailors doing the work.
"I guess for some of the older Sailors, it'll be a sad thing," said Holland of the forthcoming farewell to fighters.
Holland added that working on Hornets involves a lot less corrosion work that significantly cuts back on maintenance man-hours, allowing some very useful time for command and personal development, such as warfare qualifications and education.
"I think things will improve overall," said Holland, "with time for Sailors to get better at being Sailors."
Aside from a little less maintenance on the new platform, some still don't know what to expect.
"I've never had an 'end of an era,'" said Aviation Structural Mechanic 1st Class (AW/SW) Craig McClure, who has spent 17 years working on Tomcats. "I can't say I'm looking forward to it, but once I'm there, change is not always bad - it's just different. It's sad in a way."
Only two more of VF-32's aircraft require another 280-day inspection before the squadron transitions to the Hornet. From a maintenance perspective, things are truly drawing to a close for the legendary Tomcat.
The Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group, consisting of USS Barry (DDG 52), USS Mason (DDG 87), USS Monterey (CG 61), USNS Arctic (T-AOE 8), USS Albuquerque (SSN 706) and the aircraft from embarked CVW-3, deployed Oct. 13 for its second deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the global war on terrorism.