Staff Sgt. Andrew Tiehes, an aircraft structural maintainer with the 22nd MXS, uses a box-and-pan brake to bend a piece of sheet metal for a KC-135 Stratotanker part. (Air Force photo by Brannen Parrish).
Tech. Sgt. Chad Marx, an aircraft structural maintainer with the 931st MXS, clamps a portion of sheet metal to a foot shear to build a galley for a KC-135 Stratotanker. (Air Force photo by Brannen Parrish)
by Brannen Parrish
931st Air Refueling Group Public Affairs
3/26/2012 - MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- Aircraft structural specialists are like plastic and cosmetic surgeons. They can surgically remove and replace an outer and inner layer of skin to repair damaged areas and perform protective procedures, like painting or coating, to prevent blemishes.
The skin of an airplane, like the skin of a human, is the most visible and noticeable part of the body. It is also the first line of defense against debris or the elements.
In the same way that human skin is susceptible to damage from exposure, aircraft skin is susceptible to corrosion. Corrosion, like skin cancer or biological infections, can spread and wreak havoc on an aircraft's first layer of protection.
"To get corrosion, you need oxygen and moisture," said Staff Sgt. Devon Street, an aircraft structural maintainer with the 931st Maintenance Squadron. "If you have those conditions, a new piece of metal will rust if it is in contact with a corroded section. If you put a new nut on a rusty bolt, the corrosion will spread from the bolt to the nut."
The integrated, Total Force Initiative Maintenance section here is comprised of more than 40 active duty Airmen from the 22nd MXS, and six Reservists from the 931st MXS.
The section cuts, bends, shapes, sands, paints and forms metals and composites to fabricate aircraft parts and equipment.
"It takes finesse to form metals," said Tech Sgt. Chad Marx, an aircraft structural maintainer from the 931st MXS. "You can't act like a caveman with a rock."
Bending and forming metal requires the maintainer to understand not only the tools he is using but the materials. Like wood, sheet metal has grains that run from one direction to another. When a structural aircraft maintainer is bending, he or she must ensure the bend does not run parallel to the grain and ensure the metals are sanded properly.
"With some bends, if you don't have them sanded perfectly, you'll get a crack in the metal," said Marx.
Staff Sgt. Andrew Tiehes, an aircraft structural maintainer from the 22nd MXS, said their work is highly visible.
"When you look at an aircraft and you see the skin or the rivets on the skin -- anything that's made out of sheet metal, it's our responsibility," said Tiehes. "That's what I like about this job. The structures and metals technology sections are the only ones who make anything. With every other job you remove the part and replace it. We are the only ones who actually make anything."
As the first line of defense against the elements, the skin of an aircraft must be structurally sound and patched before it is released for flight.
"If we don't fix planes properly structural failure could occur," said Tiehes. "That isn't something anyone wants."