Aviation fuel is not spring water. It doesn’t travel in small plastic bottles but through miles of often corroded pipelines, or it’s pumped into greasy truck or railcar tankers, or transferred to enormous, not-quite-clean ocean-going tankers.
When the fuel gets to its destination, for instance the USS Abraham Lincoln nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, you cannot simply pump it straight into the belly of a jet fighter about to take off. Not if you don’t want something bad to happen, like the water and sediment the fuel has picked up in its long journey fouling the jet’s engines while it thunders across the carrier deck.
“Any bad fuel, and the plane will go directly in the water,” said Chief Petty Officer Cory Lee, a 1991 Taft High School graduate who has served his country in the U.S. Navy for the past 22 years and is aviation boatswain’s mate in charge of fuel aboard the Nimitz-class carrier. That means he’s responsible for making sure the fuel doesn’t clog airplane engines or cause any other of the other deadly problems that can occur if it isn’t handled with shipshape precision.
His job is “real simple,” Lee said.
“We receive fuel out at sea, from a refueling ship,” he said over the phone. “We bring it onboard; we have approximately 187 tanks on the ship. We put the fuel in the tanks where we purify it, send it through a filter, just like at a brewery — the same concept as Budweiser. When we send it up to the flight deck they get clear, bright fuel.”
While cleaning the fuel, it takes vigilance to make sure it doesn’t blow up. “We have to take a lot of safety precautions,” he said.
Lee, 40, grew up on the West Side and didn’t have money for college. But he had a role model: his cousin, Jacqueline Williams, serving in the Navy. “She was telling me all the places she visited,” Lee recalled. “That kind of brightened my curiosity. So I joined the Navy right after high school.”
And did he see the world?
“Oh yes, yes I have,” he said. “A very large part of it. Not everything, but I saw a lot.”
And his favorite parts?
“I would say Spain,” Lee said. “Spain and Italy. I like the scenery.”
He gets back to Chicago about once a year to visit his mother, Delores Lee, who still lives on the West Side, and she appreciates what the Navy did for her son.
“It’s helped him, helped him out a lot,” she said. “It made a man out of him. I’m proud of him. I tell him all the time.”
The Abraham Lincoln is 25 years old, and saw action around the world, particularly during the Iraq War. It was on its flight deck that President George W. Bush landed for his famous “Mission Accomplished” visit. The ship went into port in March 2013 for three years of top-to-bottom overhaul, from the reactors to the hull, to carry it through the next 25 years. The 2,500-person crew is living ashore — Lee has a house in Newport News, Va. — though several hundred crew members redeploy to various Navy ships to keep their sea legs.
Lee oversees rebuilding the fuel system.
“Right now we’re in a shipyard environment,” he said. “Taking a lot of pumps, motors and valves out of the system, remanufacturing all the equipment.”
The overhaul will take until fall 2016 to complete. By then Lee plans to be close to retiring from the Navy.
“I’m actually about to graduate with an MBA from St. Leo University,” said Lee, who earned his undergraduate degree from Park University while in the Navy. “That takes a big portion of my off-duty time.”
What are his plans when he gets out?
“I want to open up my own business, maybe financial management,” he said.
What, I wondered, has the Navy taught Lee that he’ll bring to his civilian career?
Lee replied by speaking about the dangers of walking around an active flight deck.
“You can get sucked into an engine,” he said. “If you’re real tall and walk without bending, a helicopter can chop your head off. Everyone has to look out for each other. And there’s a saying on the flight deck: ‘Keep your head on a swivel.’ ”
In other words: Take care of your co-workers and be aware of everything around you.
Good advice for business, and for just about everything else in life.