Dirty Jobs: Chilling with HVAC

by Staff Sgt. Amber Grimm
51st Fighter Wing PAO

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea -- This is the second article in a series focusing on and recognizing the 'Dirty Jobs' done by Airmen of the 51st Civil Engineer Squadron.

 The workspace is narrow and dark, his hands blackened with soot and oil, sweat rolls down his face stinging his eyes, but he keeps working, he's a heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration Airmen of the 51st Civil Engineer Squadron and it's his job to keep air flowing.

 They're who gets called when it's too hot, too cold or even when your refrigerator isn't working. They're the ones responsible for the temperature of almost every building on base from the Base Exchange and the dining facility to your offices and homes, even base restaurants rely on the HVAC team when something goes wrong.

 "It's a busy career field," said Senior Airman Cory Willis, 51st CES HVAC/R journeyman. "Nothing can be done without HVAC, just imagine how hard it'd be to operate the base without email because the air conditioning went down in the server rooms."

 Their jobs have them working on old loaders or pipes, on roofs, in rooms that have no air conditioning with the temperatures steadily climbing or repairing boilers in a room growing colder by the minute in the winter.  Covered in oil, dirty water, grease, soot, and sweat, an HVAC/R Airman's job site is rarely comfortable.

 "I've had to crawl into small spaces in the ceiling to perform duct repairs and fix pipe leaks," said Willis. "It gets hot in those ducts too, temperatures can get up to 130-140 degrees, we try not to be in there long but if something needs to be fixed, someone has to do it. You want to get as many jobs done in a day as possible because there will always be more."

 These skilled technicians have completed roughly 1,653 jobs and logged 1,975 hours just on emergency calls since January. That works out to eight different jobs every day, including weekends, and 82 straight days of working on emergency jobs. Even with the high tempo of jobs coming in, these Airmen say they still enjoy what they do and strive to perfect their work every day.

 "It's not just your typical job, you not only get your hands dirty, but you've really got to use your head as well," said Airman 1st Class Evan Evans, 51st CES HVAC/R apprentice. "It's a new thing every day; one room isn't necessarily going to be the same in the next-- it keeps you on your toes."

 "I enjoy this job, I picked it and I waited a year and a half to get it. I just knew this is what I wanted to do," said Willis. "It's a challenge; there could be five, 10, 1,000 different reasons why the air isn't flowing right."

 "The majority of our job is learned through on-the-job training, watching someone and actually doing it ourselves. We end up relying pretty heavily on those who have been doing the job for a while, though you do try to figure things out on your own first," says Willis.

 Being overseas, sometimes forces CE to wait months for parts in order to complete a job while still working 12-14 hour days. Climbing into cramped spaces with little to no available lighting, while the heat keeps climbing until sweat is glistening on every inch of exposed skin can lead to some intense situations, or as Willis puts it, "When they're uncomfortable, people are real quick to get emotional."

 Knowing this, HVAC Airmen tend to use humor to keep things calm and the team functioning, but it goes further than just knowing you can depend on your fellow airmen to help you get a job done.  In the case of these Airmen, those moments when they can laugh and joke with each other bonds them, allows them to keep their cool and know that they can count on each other both on and off duty.  "It is definitely a brotherhood, I've played sports my whole life but this, this is the closest team I've ever been on," said Evans.

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