MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. “â€ In the world of aircraft maintenance, there is virtually no room for error. Metals technologists must be skilled at machining, measuring, drilling, cutting and welding with flawless precision.
The Total Force integrated metals technology section of the 931st Maintenance Squadron and the 22nd Maintenance Squadron possess a wide array of skills that would be performed by individual offices in a commercial manufacturing shop.
“We do about eight or nine jobs that would normally be performed by the same number of sections in the commercial sector,” said Staff Sgt. Charles King, a metals technologist, from the 931st MXS. King, an Air Reserve Technician, is one of three 931st MXS Airmen assigned to the section. The three 931st members combine their skills with those of 16 active duty Airmen from the 22nd MXS to provide round-the-clock support for aircraft and equipment.
While metals technology Airmen are required to be proficient in a number of skilled areas from computer aided drafting and machining to welding, all of them start out learning to machine parts with conventional machining equipment.
The craft requires a great deal of practice and planning.
“You have to have a vision, see the part in your mind and plan ahead,” said King. “If you don’t know what you are doing, you will waste time and materials.”
According to Staff Sgt. Chase Splichal, a metals technologist from the 22nd MXS, developing machining skills takes time and training.
“I spent about two years learning conventional machining before I began learning computer numerical control,” Splichal said.
A CNC is a type of computer-operated lathe that is used to manufacture parts. The material, or piece, is fastened to a moveable table and rotates or turns while a sharpened cutting tool is applied to remove unwanted material.
“It’s an amazing machine,” said King. “If you have the materials, you can actually build a new lathe with a lathe.”
Once an Airman is proficient with manual equipment, he can move on and learn how to program the CNC.
The CNC combines the functions of performed by manually operated machining tools with the precision of a computer. Metals technologists work with extremely low tolerances for error and although conventional lathes are precise, computer aided machining allows them to mass produce parts exactly and quickly.
“When you are dealing with aircraft, you have to be exact,” said King. “To get an idea of the room for error, take the thickness of a hair and divide it by four, then divide that number by two.”
Skilled metals technologists are highly sought after because the career field encompasses an array of skills that translate to commercial industry. With so much potential for post-military employment, King said he doesn’t understand why more people aren’t lining up to work in the career field.
“All of the reality television shows that depict companies that make customized motorcycles and cars employ at least one machinist somewhere in their shop, or contract machine work out to manufacture customized rims,” said King. “You can learn to create some amazing parts. The only limitations are the tools, software and imagination.”
Metals technologists must also learn to master the art of welding. Becoming a skilled welder takes patience and practice. Creating a weld that will withstand the strain of flight isn’t as simple as following a checklist.
“It takes a lot of practice and there is a rhythm to welding,” said Splichal. “One day you’ll be hot and get every weld right, and you might take a break and come back a few minutes later and you can’t get it right.”
All welds must be certified by the Nondestructive Inspections section to ensure the materials have properly bonded. The slightest flaw will fail a weld.
“A good weld will look like the edges of little dimes,” said King. “It’s like penmanship; you are really good or really bad at making a pretty weld.”
Many of the Airmen who are drawn to the career field have prior knowledge or experience with metalwork.
“A lot of them have taken machining and welding courses in high school,” said Splichal, who studied welding and hand fabrication in high school. “We also get a lot of people who learn about what we do and who want to reclassify into the career field.”
Others enjoy turning a block of metal into a useable tool or part whether at work or at home. King has transferred something he enjoyed doing in his spare time into a job.
“It’s a hobby I made into a career.” King said.