A clear demarcation exists between the tasks I did in QA before and those after the 7 months I spent away in the 1st Gulf War. My first year as an inspector had been devoted to assessing standards and keeping the avionics technicians honest with plenty of inspections. (read part 1 for more on those experiences.) I had been the bogeyman, the maintenance cop, the guy to watch out for.
Once the war ended however, and I returned to my old home in the Quality Assurance shop, I was shocked at how much had changed. As far as many of the other inspectors were concerned—me included—a terrible wind had roared through Little Rock AFB and had swept away much of what HAD previously made maintenance so effective there.
Two transformations had taken place, both of which had a huge impact on me as a QA inspector.
First, there was no longer a wing DCM. The Deputy Commander for Maintenance, usually a full bird colonel, and usually a pilot but sometimes not, was the “maintenance king.” He “owned” all the planes in the wing and was responsible for their upkeep. We in QA were his “people,” his eyes and ears, and kept him informed on all the doings “out there,” on the flightline and in the shops.
The DCM “went away” under a new-fangled organizational concept called decentralized maintenance. Under that new “foolish” brainchild the planes were distributed out to 4 new Aircraft Generation Squadrons. Each squadron commander of those AGS’s then became responsible for HIS planes. So, there was no more DCM to control ALL the 80 or so C‑130s, and believe me, maintenance suffered horribly because of it--and I'll tell you why I think so as this continues.
The second sweeping change that "enveloped" the entire Air Force during my absence had an even bigger impact on us QA guys than even the onset of decentralization. It was called TQM, which stands for Total Quality Management.
When TQM was first explained to me I recoiled in horror that anyone would be silly enough to try to implement such an idiotic thing for aircraft maintainers. The basic concept of TQM, at least as far as it was interpreted for use on Air Force flightlines, was that quality inspectors were no longer required, and THAT was all I had to hear to know that some moron had finally become the boss of the United States Air Force!
The rationale for the demise of inspections (and inspectors) was simple—under the principles of “total quality,” ALL members of the wing were going to have a new “quality oriented” mindset—with proper training and indoctrination of course—and would no longer require any oversight, because magically it seems, they would take responsibility for always doing the right thing, for doing it absolutely correct and by the book.
So, in 1990 and 1991, during a phase-in time of just over 6 months, the Air Force had made two very major cultural and organizational changes, and from what I could see as an inspector, doing so was a huge error on several levels.
For one thing, a major misjudgment was that "they" hurriedly put into effect TWO incredibly earthshaking institutional revolutions at THE SAME TIME! Now, I understand that there are times when its best to just actuate quickly instead of gradually, but this was not one of those times. It was simply too much too fast.
In one crucial way the quick changes destroyed the very fabric of what makes a unit good at what it does--the level of experience available to it. By decentralizing, virtually overnight, they practically wiped out almost every bit of corporate knowledge among the specialist trades. Where there HAD been a shop all filled with people with THE SAME specialty credentials, now, these troops (and their experience and varying backgrounds) was spread out between four different squadrons.
The idea behind this "misguided" action was that these specialists were “under-utilized” and “spoiled” and so could now be “cross-utilized” for OTHER “more important” "general" tasks, such as towing, refueling, tire changing, and panel pulling. Those had all been jobs strictly done by APGs, or the general mechanics, most of which had the view that ALL specialists were lazy, while all the “real work” was done by the APGs. (By now you might be picking up on the undercurrent of resentment that many APGs had for specialists, especially for avionics specialists!)
Unfortunately, the APGs under the newly decentralized schema were now running the maintenance show and “the abuse,” I mean the "cross-utilization" of the specialists began in earnest. Specialist training suffered horribly; usually, there was no one supervising the young apprentices anymore, at least not anyone with much experience on their systems. Before, there has been a specialist shift leader, a specialist shop chief, and a branch chief, all of whom took particular care to make sure THEIR new people were trained, and trained well. Compared to that, the new system was nothing less than a training fiasco.
Before, when the specialists were centralized in shops, there were always on-call a large population of experienced men and women from which to call upon for the tougher system malfunctions. Suddenly, these people were scattered to the wind and were no longer available for advice, guidance and training.
Now, instead of a 3-level having the advantage of being exposed in training to several 5 and 7-levels, once assigned to an AGS they usually trained under a single 5-level who had also been trained similarly. After a year of that nonsense the damage was done. What the heck were "they" thinking!
And speaking of training, previous to the formation of AGS’s, there had been almost 80 aircraft upon which to train at LRAFB. With so many airplanes it had been relatively easy for a supervisor to find the infrequent jobs for apprentice technicians to train and learn on. Suddenly, not only were there fewer experienced trainers, now there were less than 20 aircraft to use for that training. The result is that a new troop might NEVER get a chance to see and learn many of the infrequently seen tasks and malfunctions. Now THAT wasn't very smart, was it?
All together, I can’t imagine anyone coming up with a more efficient way to destroy the abilities of what had been a very fine set of avionics experience. I can't speak for all the other specialists, like the electricians, and the hydraulic and engine troops, but for me, it was a sad thing to see, especially considering how amazing the specialists had just performed during the 1990-91 war.
This new situation—the dispersing of planes and specialists—really began to limit the abilities of the newly qualified troops. It sickened me to watch it because once the core set of veteran technicians began to either leave or get promoted off the flightline, their lost expertise was virtually impossible to regenerate.
Luckily for me, and luckily for the 314th TAW, the decision was made NOT to disband the QA shop and therefore my life in “quality” continued, albeit in a metamorphosed state. As it turned out, it was one of the best periods of my life in the Air Force. I’ll get into exactly why in part 3 of QA, A Touch Feely Experience.