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Last line of defence

The saying goes that you’re having a bad day if you need some of the gear the Royal New Zealand Air Force's Safety and Surface team looks after.

05 August, 2022

The equipment will keep you alive in a disaster and the team is under no illusion of the importance of ensuring it is kept in perfect condition.

The gear stored and maintained in Base Ohakea’s Aeronautical Life Support Equipment Bay are life rafts, life preservers, dry suits and cylinders filled with CO2, helium or compressed air.

The bay is “pan-Air Force” and supports all the squadrons that use the equipment Safety and Surface Co-ordinator Flight Sergeant (F/S) Forrest McLeod said.

The Safety and Surface team deals with a range of issues when they service the equipment, he said.

“In the Hercules there are different temperature changes in the wings, so you can get mould, mildew, all sorts of things happening to the life rafts.

We need to ensure they are clean before operationally testing them with compressed air.

“We make sure they inflate in the time they are supposed to inflate, check the pressure relief valves work so they don’t over-inflate, look for holes, change all the time-expired medical aids, so seasickness tablets and anything else in the First Aid kit.”

Depending on the safety equipment being serviced, the work could take hours or days to get through, F/S McLeod said.

“You’re already having a bad day if you have to use our stuff, so there is an importance to getting it right. There is a lot involved in what we do and we expect our people here to be able to do this and then go next door and pack parachutes seamlessly, or paint an aircraft.

“There are a lot of different facets and little skill sets needed for the job. You’ve got to be very observant, you’ve got to be able to identify degradation in material. Anyone can pump up a bike tyre but can you see what’s going on with the tyre.” 

It weighs on me how important work is, we can’t afford to make errors, we’re the last line of defence with regards to safety.

Mal Chambers-Asman

A Royal New Zealand Air Force Aviator working in the Liferaft Bay at Base Ohakea. There are liferafts and other equipment all over the floor.

A Royal New Zealand Air Force Aviator working in the Liferaft Bay at Base Ohakea

The team deal with safety equipment designed for large fixed wing aircraft such as the Boeing B757 and the Hercules C-130, down to the smaller rotary aircraft like the A109 helicopters.

“Sometimes with the big life rafts you can only get to them when the aircraft is being serviced but others can be taken out like a suitcase. The ones in the Hercules are stored above the engines in the wings. If the plane ditches in the water the wings will float on top and the rafts can be retrieved.”

Mal Chambers-Asman teaches the fundamentals of servicing the liferafts and general handling skills to the graduates that have finished their basic fabric upholstery training at Base Woodbourne.

Each student will get on-the-job training for a few months at each of the Safety and Surface sections – the life raft bay, parachute bay and painting section.

“I think the students enjoy the variety. There are a lot of different things to be doing with the painting, life rafts and parachutes. The skills learnt also appeals – there is a lot of hands-on work,” Mr Chambers-Asman said.

“It looks complex and when you’re dealing with safety equipment it is, but when you get into the routine of servicing stuff, it becomes second nature after a while.”

Aircraftman (AC) Sarah Roberts is still going through on-the-job training and is about to start her next role in the painting section.

“I enjoy all the aspects, I started working in No. 14 Squadron working with the pilots’ gear and this is my last rotation in here and I just enjoy the complexity of it.”

After going through recruit course in 2019, AC Roberts went straight into the Safety and Surface trade.

“I chose it solely for the sewing machine and fabric work. My grandmother has been a seamstress her whole life so it fitted exactly with what I wanted in a job, so I took it and ran with it.

“I think I’m quite a technical person and, while they’ve got all the sewing work that people think is really easy, but it’s definitely not, it’s got all the technical work as well and I enjoy the hands-on work with the equipment.”