Keesler mechanics' toolboxes contain laptops

  • Published
  • By Steve Hoffmann
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
What is a laptop computer doing in an auto mechanics garage? Is this some kind of sick joke? Someone must have left it behind. But according to Randal Toland, 81st Logistics Readiness Squadron fleet manager, it's no joke. It's theirs. They own it. And not only that, they use it every day.

What's next? Phones with no cords? Electric cars? Yes. It's happening. Microchips and motor oil have merged.

"You can't just go out with a crescent wrench and a hammer anymore," said Toland. "Everything is computerized these days -- from the anti-lock braking systems to transmission systems, even heavy equipment. You need a laptop computer with diagnostic software that talksto onboard computers to find out what's wrong."

And where you find grease and laptop computers coming together, as is the case at Keesler's vehicle maintenance shop, there you will find highly-skilled, highly-trained mechanics where training is always happening.

Keesler's fleet is comprised of 406 vehicles, mostly cars and trucks but also heavy equipment including back-end loaders, excavators and cranes with a value of more than $29 million. Vehicle maintenance supports 23 units on base with a crew of 15 civilians and approximately 30 military members.

After obtaining their apprentice 3-skill level at Port Hueneme Naval Base, Calif., Airmen will come to Keelser to work on their career development courses.

"This is where they get their hands dirty," said Toland. "After they read about adjusting the brakes, they come here and actually adjust the brakes."

Duties in the vehicle maintenance career field include inspecting, repairing and modifying general purpose vehicles, base maintenance equipment and special purpose vehicles. After Keesler, Airmen move on to more advanced specialized training back at Port Heneme or Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. There they'll learn how to fix things like cargo loaders, aircraft refuelers, advanced transmissions, diesel engines and P-19 fire trucks. And yes, even the big toys have computers in them.

"It's all computers these days," said Jimmy Robinson, heavy equipment mechanic. Robinson has worked at Keesler's vehicle maintenance for more than 30 years and has gradually adjusted to the presence of a laptop computer next to his morning cup of motor oil.

"There used to be two sides to the shop," said Robinson. "You had the heavy equipment side and the light side where all the fancy stuff like computers came earlier. Now the heavy equipment has computers too and it's all just one shop now. That's probably been the hardest adjustment to make."

Although Robinson would rather be making an adjustment to the clutch on a John Deere, adjusting to computers is just something he along with all his other fellow mechanics have had to make. According to Toland, the knowledge base is vast.

"You may be working on a Ford one day, then a Chrysler the next day and a John Deere the day after that," said Toland. "And they all have their own unique ways of doing the same thing. So training is something we do all the time."

And if having four-wheel drives and hard drives mentioned in the same breath wasn't enough, vehicle maintenance is going green.

By mandate of Executive Order 13423, which uses fiscal year 2005 as a baseline, federal agencies are required to reduce petroleum consumption by 2 percent annually through 2015. Additionally, a 10 percent annual increase in alternative fuel consumption is also required as is the purchase of alternative vehicles such as hybrid, electric and flex fuel vehicles.

Keesler is well on its way toward achieving those goals. For fiscal year 2011, a goal to limit gasoline use to 130,000 gallons was met by the use of only 70,000 gallons and 78,000 gallons the previous year. Vehicle maintenance has also increased its consumption of alternative fuels in the form of biodiesel to 37,000 gallons in fiscal year 2011. Of the 361 government-owned vehicles, 57 are flex-fuel vehicles and 170 are biodiesel.

The mechanics at vehicle maintenance aren't just grease monkeys anymore. They are doctors of internal automotive mechanics. And if the previous examples weren't enough to convince you, consider this -- they recycle their own antifreeze, some 40 gallons every three months. What's the world coming to?