Repairing aircraft, saving lives

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Kathleen D. Bryant
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
A daily driver needs routine maintenance: the oil needs to be changed, the tires need to be rotated and when a rock hits the windshield - it has to be replaced. Much like the way we take care of our cars, aircraft need maintenance at one point or another.

Similarly, when it comes to well-used aircraft, cracks, dents and overall structural damage will occur and be found during routine inspections. The Air Force employs specific maintainers to upkeep the structural parts.

Approximately 70 Airmen in the 23d Equipment Maintenance Squadron aircraft structural maintenance shop work around the clock to keep Moody's aircraft flying by performing repairs to the structural components, fabricating parts and painting the aircraft.

"Our job is to keep the integrity of the aircraft intact," said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Craig Irvine, 23d EMS aircraft structural craftsman. "You have to have a good imagination for this job. We are kind of like an auto paint-and-body shop for aircraft. We take parts and 'fabricate them' and make them our own instead of getting them from a factory."

The kinds of repairs ASM works on varies because they work on the whole aircraft, any structural part is their responsibility.

"Without sheet metal, the aircraft wouldn't be able to fly," said Airman 1st Class Shawn Beaver, 23d EMS aircraft structural apprentice. "It could be something as simple as a loose rivet on an aircraft and it won't fly. We have to go out and replace it. Any dent, gauge, scratch or anything missing, we have to repair or replace."

In order to divide the work equally, the shop is broken down in two sections: the main shop and the paint barn.

"We have Airmen in the main shop who fix aircraft and Airmen in the paint barn that do corrosion protection or painting," said Beaver. "We rotate who's in the paint barn and who's in the main shop. In the paint barn, there is a team of about five guys at one time. Anything we fabricate, we have to paint."

ASM Airmen have the ability to work on any aircraft, but they maintain three airframes at Moody: the A-10C Thunderbolt II, the HC-130P/J Combat King and the HH-60G Pave Hawk.

"From nose to tail and wing tip to wing tip, we essentially work on every part of the airframe," said Tech. Sgt. Frederick Reaves, 23d EMS aircraft structural lead technician. "Every day we face new and challenging repairs."

The Airmen have to be prepared for all types of circumstances because some repairs are complex while others may be simple.

"Every day we come into work, we have no idea what we'll be tasked," said Beaver. "There are over 70 aircraft that fly non-stop at this base and anything can happen at any given time. It can be challenging because I may be given something I'm rusty on or something I don't know how to do on my own and I'm out there with only a technical order to figure out the issue the aircraft's having."

A technical order is a step-by-step guide on how to do a repair that ASM uses to learn and master their job. Whether deployed or at home station, the expertise acquired by aircraft structural maintainers keeps aircraft repaired and ready to perform Moody's mission.

"At home, even though the workload is high, when the shift ends I can hand what I'm working on over to someone else to finish," said Irvine. "When we're deployed, the pace at which we work changes and the unfinished work is going be there the next day. We stay focused on getting the work done."

Without the distractions of everyday life, ASM maintainers are more mission-focused when deployed and one Airman realized the difference they make when working in a timely manner.

"When I was in Afghanistan, we were getting swamped [with work]," said Irvine. "I got called to fix a puncture on an HH-60. It took about two hours to fix and as soon as I finished, we were attacked. Once it was signed off, [the helicopter] left and saved somebody's life.

"This really put everything into perspective because you think you don't make a difference," said Irvine. "But what we do is vital to everyone because if the aircraft isn't flying, lives aren't getting saved."

Keeping your car maintained and safe can be the difference between life and death on the highway. Likewise, when it comes to aircraft, ASM keeps the pilots and crew safe. Even the smallest repair could make a difference.