Miracle on the Base
The boiler malfunction was his problem, and he hadn’t called anyone for assistance. So who was this young man who showed up to help?
The phone rang just as I was climbing into bed. My wife rolled her eyes. I knew what she was thinking. In my job, a ten o’clock call meant only one thing: an issue over at the Air Force Base. A problem that needed my attention, my expertise. A problem people were counting on me to get fixed. Pronto.
I grabbed the receiver. One of my coworkers wasn’t feeling well. He begged me to relieve him. “I’ll be right over,” I said. At least it wasn’t something worse. “Anything I should know?”
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“Boiler’s acting up. I can’t get it to stay on. The building’s getting cold, so bring a sweater.”
Boiler trouble? It was winter, freezing cold, even here in Northern Mississippi. And tonight, of all nights, the temperature inside the Flight Simulator Building I maintained had to be kept at a constant 76 degrees with 60 percent humidity.
I got dressed and kissed my wife good-bye, making a mental note of all the things I’d have to do.
My staff and I constantly monitored the heating and air conditioning, the humidity, the electricity, everything to ensure that this building, with its 16 state-of-the-art simulators and highly sensitive computers and electronic equipment, could operate 24/7 without even a hiccup. A drop of even a few degrees could be catastrophic.
The Air Force brass was coming in the morning for a full-scale dog and pony show, a complete run-through for all the new flight simulators. A super-big deal. The kind of day that could make or break a career. S till, I wasn’t that worried as I drove over.
I was 34, a veteran aerospace engineer, a rocket scientist. Out of college I’d worked as part of the support team for the Apollo space program and helped put a man on the moon. A boiler was basically a giant hot-water heater. Nothing to it. The important thing was to see that it was back online ASAP.
I got to the Flight Simulator Building in 20 minutes and went straight to the boiler. It was huge–eight-feet tall, six-feet wide–with a series of switches and handles to control it. The tank connected to a maze of pipes that delivered hot water, exactly 180 degrees, throughout the building’s heating system.
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“Okay,” I said. “Let’s get you up and running.” The building was quiet, not another soul around. I turned a knob a bit to the right, then the next one to the left. There was a set sequence that had to be followed precisely to reset the boiler. I listened for it to fire up. Good.
There was nothing to do but wait. It took about 30 minutes for the boiler to run through the whole cycle. Still I didn’t dare leave, even to go to my office across the hall. I had to be sure. Everything depended on me.
The boiler ran perfectly, almost to the end of the final cycle, and then suddenly it went dead. I took a deep breath. Okay, I must have turned a knob too far. Nothing to worry about. I checked the wiring. Everything looked good.
I turned the first knob, then the second. Ensuring I did it exactly right. Again the boiler started, then died. I retraced my steps over and over. No matter what I tried, the result was the same. Finally, I went to my office and got the manual. I followed each instruction to the T.
It seemed like I was only making the problem worse. The boiler shut down quicker with each attempt I made to fix it. Like it was mocking me. The building was growing colder by the minute. There was nothing more I could do. It was way after midnight.
I’d never felt more frustrated and useless. There was no possible way to repair the boiler. Not tonight at least. Come morning, I’d have to call the manufacturer. My only prayer was that my boss wouldn’t fire me on the spot. But what were the odds of that? He’d be furious. It would be a miracle if he wasn’t.