KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
Taking an ordinary piece of metal and crafting it into a functioning aircraft part might seem like magic, but the Airmen at the 403rd Wing Fabrication Flight do it every day.
Also like magicians, or an auto body shop, the Fabrication Flight can take dents, scratches, holes and any other structural damage and make them disappear. In fact, they call themselves the “Home of the: You bend it, we mend it.”
Damage can happen to any aircraft for countless reasons during a routine flight. On top of routine training flights, half of the 403rd Wing’s fleet of C-130J Super Hercules aircraft land on dirt strips and perform tactical maneuvers while the other half flies through hurricanes on a regular basis. This causes heavy wear and tear that the fabrication flight repairs, as well as preventative maintenance.
“We’ve saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by not having to take aircraft to the overhaul facility,” Senior Master Sgt. Joseph Cantrell, 403rd Fabrication Flight chief, said.
“We go through isochronal inspections on a regular cycle and then complete required repairs in the ISO (Isochronal) hangars,” Senior Master Sergeant Steven Connors, structural shop supervisor, said.
Also, when crew chiefs from the 403rd or 803rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadrons are working out on the flight line and find discrepancies on the aircraft, the 403rd Fabrication Flight is dispatched to assess and repair the findings.
First, they sand off the top coat of paint or investigate the damage, then they remove the damage down to the frame by cutting it out. They use the damaged pieces as templates for new ones as much as possible and then the unusable scrap metal is collected and processed by the Keesler Recycling Center.
The flight then uses specialized tools and equipment to bend, shape and mill replacement pieces. Most of these machines are computer-controlled so that the Airman can just program the piece that needs to be made and the machine will make it. A three axis milling machine can shape bolts and rivets out of blocks of metal and a water jet milling machine uses high water pressure and garnet to cut parts out of large metal sheets. Cantrell said that once the flight had to make bleed air ducts from scratch for all 20 aircraft in 35 days. In that time they cut, bent and drilled more than 500 feet of steel.
“Initially the equipment is expensive, but over time it saves in manpower and production costs,” Cantrell said. “You just program it, let it go and it’s finished in a few hours. If you tasked a person to do that, it would take them a week.”
After the new piece is made, the flight members install it, make sure the repair is flush with the body of the Aircraft, prime it and paint it.
“Once we’re done, you won’t even know it’s there,” Cantrell said.
Another threat to the 403rd Wing’s fleet is the local environment. South Mississippi’s beaches can be beautiful, but the saltwater and humidity that come with them can eat away at the metal shell of an aircraft if not prevented. The Fabrication Flight performs corrosion control by repainting sections of the aircraft on a regular basis.
“Paint is vital to maintaining the barrier between metal and the corrosiveness of the atmosphere,” Cantrell said. “During hurricane season the aircraft are usually painted twice because the storms peel back the paint to bare metal.”
“We are considered to be in a highly corrosive environment, and we perform corrosion control and use preventative maintenance,” Connors said. “We’re vital to the structural integrity of the aircraft.”
To help with this painting, the flight has a specially constructed paint booth that can hold pieces as big as the outer wing flap of a C-130J. The air comes in through one wall and is filtered out through the other, eliminating the environmental hazards of high-pressure painting. For touch-ups and larger paint jobs, the flight still does things the old fashioned way with rollers and brushes.
The Fabrication flight even puts the finishing touches on each aircraft by using special printers to make decals, markings and nametags for each Hurricane Hunter and Flying Jenny aircraft.
With such diverse and extensive capabilities at the 403rd Fabrication flight, Cantrell said, “There is no typical day.”