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Forging fleet of tomorrow at 2,000 degrees

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Kevin Sommer Giron
  • 19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

A bright white light flashes from a closed-off room as an Airman torches a piece of metal at more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The temperature of the room is surprisingly cool as the fire molds the metal’s imperfections away.

The smell of burning iron fades as the Airman removes his mask, revealing a look of accomplishment and satisfaction that the job is done.

He is part of the 19th Maintenance Squadron Aircraft Metals Technology shop, responsible for repairing and manufacturing aircraft parts using welding and milling machines.  

“The most important aspect of our job is creating parts that are delayed or are unobtainable through the supply system,” said U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Jason Hicks, 19th MXS Aircraft Metals Technology craftsman. “Maintainers come to us and we manufacture the parts usually within a day or two.”

The metals tech Airmen are machinists, using milling machines to create functional parts out of large blocks of metal or aluminum.

From manual milling machines to new computer numeric controlled equipment, the Airmen can mass produce 100 to 200 aircraft parts at a time, reducing wait times for aircraft parts by more than half.

“What sets our career field apart from others is the ingenuity we use to make the parts,” Hicks said. “We get to think outside the box to figure out how we’re going to engineer a part instead of having to follow a step-by-step guide.”

These metal engineers are able to create all structural components of an aircraft from nose to tail. 

“The amount of things we can make are endless — if we can think it, we can program it and make it,” said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Andrew Herrick, 19th MXS Aircraft Metals Technology journeyman.

In the true essence of a metals craftsman, the shop’s Airmen are more than machinists; they are welders and skilled in heat treating.

“A lot of our welding is done on support equipment; B-5 and B-1 stands for example,” Herrick said. “The majority of aircraft parts we weld are tail pipes.”

After welding a part, it can be heat treated. This process realigns the metal’s grain structure to make it harder and relieves stress on the structure.

“I think heat treating is the most underrated portion of our job,” Hicks said. “I’m fascinated by how we can heat treat a metal as thin as a soda can for six to eight hours, and it turns out almost like a super metal.”

In addition to ensuring aircraft parts are built with the finest metal possible, the shop saves aircraft maintainers time. On average, the shop can mass produce a part in two to three days.

Last year, the Airmen repaired and manufactured more than 500 unobtainable or delayed aircraft parts and support equipment, resulting in faster production times by six months to one year per part.

“Our job is mission critical because aircraft parts have strict standards,” Hicks said. “There can only be so much wear on them before they’re ‘out of limits’ according to the engineers.”

From the manufacturing shop to the flight line, these Airmen play a vital role in the C-130J’s maintenance so it can continue to provide global Combat Airlift.