by Airman 1st Class Kyle Johnson
JBER Public Affairs
12/14/2015 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Off Japan's east coast, The Continental Plate and the Pacific Ocean Plate meet to form the Japan Trench.
On March 11, 2011, the downward pressure from the Continental Plate on
the Pacific plate suddenly released, causing it to surge more than 200
feet upward, triggering a magnitude 8.9 earthquake - named the
fourth-largest earthquake in modern history.
The temblor and its subsequent tsunami killed more than 15,000 people
and displaced more than 200,000 more. Amid the devastation, it also
started the a ticking of a time-bomb 130 miles north of Yokota Air Base,
A nuclear power plant began to melt down.
"If they don't have cool water consistently pumping through the plant,
it overheats. When the tsunami came, it wiped out their backup
generators," said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jeremy Hamblin, 3rd
Maintenance Squadron aircraft metals technology craftsman. "At that
point they were unable to keep the plant cool, and with widespread power
outages, they didn't have a good way to tell people what was going on,
In less than a week, the Royal Australian Air Force showed up with new
water pumps, courtesy of the U.S. government, for immediate use in
cooling down the reactor. However, the Japanese hoses did not fit the
new water pumps, and they could not be used. The reactor continued to
Hamblin, then an Airman first class at his first duty station, was one
of eight metals technology Airmen who immediately began 12-hour shifts.
Their task was not simple: draw, design, and create adapters so the
Japanese hoses could securely connect to the U.S. water pumps - and do
it quickly enough for them to be implemented before a nuclear meltdown.
Two days later, the parts were delivered, and a catastrophe was averted.
While this is by no means an average day for metals technology Airmen, it is what they're trained to do.
"We're here to support the aircraft and all the support equipment for
the aircraft. We do everything from welding, to machining, to sometimes
prototyping and manufacturing," Hamblin said. "The majority of our work
is split between aircraft and support equipment."
Often, their work takes them out on the flightline to measure damage to
aircraft. Even the most minute of damages, like a shallow scratch may
render a piece of equipment non-mission-capable.
Aircraft metals technology Airmen are like the happy union between
graphic designers and blacksmiths wrapped into one Air Force package,
but before they draw, or put a piece of metal in their 2,900-degree
furnace, they measure.
"The tools we use are hand tools like micrometers, dial calipers, and
pick calipers - which have a point on them so fine you can measure the
depth of a scratch. Some of the calipers we have can measure a 30th of a
hair's thickness," Hamblin said. "So if you took a human hair, cut that
into three pieces and cut each of those into 10 pieces, we can measure
the thickness of that. It's really precise. We go out there and give
them an exact measurement on the size of the damage so the engineers can
go back, evaluate it, and decide if that's something that is repairable
or if it's something that's going to have to be replaced.
Some parts may allow zero damage, but some parts may allow what we would
consider quite a bit of damage," Hamblin said. "The standard is
different for every part."
Often, if it is determined that a part is in need of replacement, and
the part cannot be ordered in a timely manner, people turn to metals
technology for help. This creates some unique opportunities: like
creating adapters for coolant hoses to avert a nuclear meltdown.
More recently, Hamblin had a similar opportunity; he's now machining the
first-ever Air Force manufactured F-22 Raptor Infrared Countermeasures
"The IRCM bucket bracket holds the dispensers that go on the side of the
aircraft. Whenever there's a threat, it can dispense countermeasures
through those brackets," said Steven Mate, 3rd Maintenance Squadron,
Aircraft Metals Technology foreman. "The original bracket in the
airplane was damaged and it had to be replaced. Currently, the aircraft
is only partly mission-capable with the damaged bracket in it, meaning
they can't put any of the electronic countermeasures in on that side."
The IRCM, like many F-22, parts has been designed to be as thin as
possible to save weight, Mate said. Because of this, there's not much
room for damage before a part needs to be replaced entirely.
"Being an F-22 part, it wouldn't typically be made in an Air Force shop.
It would be handled by the factory," Hamblin said. "We aren't typically
allowed to make aircraft parts of this caliber, specifically on this
"Lockheed was going to make the new part, but the soonest they could get
it to us was the latter part of February 2016," Mate said. "So we
started doing some research to see if we were going to be able to make
it. After evaluating the drawings, we stated we could make it."
So Hamblin and his co-workers set to work measuring the model Lockheed
Martin sent in with their portable coordinate measuring machine - which
looks roughly like a high-tech hot-glue gun attached to a jointed carbon
fiber arm and a red circle at the tip of the nozzle.
"Basically you're measuring coordinates in a 3-D space," Hamblin said as
a 3-D printer hummed away on a different project behind him. "That
machine can tell you exactly where every point on a specific thing is in
that 3-D space."
The arm uses software and materials so complex, it costs upwards of $120,000, Hamblin said.
"We reverse-engineered it by measuring it with the Romer arm and feeding
the measurements back into the computer with the blueprints," Mate
Once they had the measurements, the metals technology Airmen assumed the
role of graphic designer and drew the part in their custom-built
computer from scratch, using $15,000 3-D modeling software.
"The drawing part is the easy part. That's the part everyone picks up
on," Hamblin said. "It's the same as using paint. When you're telling it
how to cut that box, that's when it gets really complicated."
They draw the part by using a series of lines separated and organized in
such a way that it looks like a 3-D blueprint. The program sees the
lines as toolpaths, which are best described as digital "roads" it
creates for the computer numerically controlled machine to follow with
its tool bit.
"It converts the inputs into what's called G-Code," Hamblin said. "Then
reads that to give the machine coordinates on where to move, how to
move, what speed to move and we can cut pretty much any shape we want
out of a piece of metal."
The program may be giving the machine those details, but someone has to
tell the program what to translate, Hamblin does that, right down to the
thousandths of an inch.
"This program is where the real parameters are. You're telling it how
much material to cut per rotation, so say I only want to cut .001 inches
per rotation, so every tooth on that cutter is going to cut one
thousandth's thickness, I'm telling it how fast to spin the spindle,
because that changes with the material, I'm telling it how fast to go
in, how fast to come out, how fast to move across the machine, and what
angle to do each of those at."
The Airman has to know the kind of metal they are working with too, and
not just whether it's aluminum or steel, but what grade of aluminum or
steel, because different qualities can take different levels of heat,
which affects how fast the machine can carve the part out of the block
of metal it's working with. That includes when to wash the block with
coolant and how often, Hamblin said.
"This [program] is another tool, that's all it is."
Each of those details can affect another detail, so they compound
together and create a complex web of commands the Airman is directly
giving the machine.
Once those commands are laid out, they can run a simulation of the
project and determine if the part meets their precise requirements. This
is vital because a mistake by even one thousandth of an inch could cost
the Air Force thousands of dollars in special alloys the jets need,
At the end of the day, a metals technology Airman uses 3-D modeling
programs like a graphics designer to sculpt precise parts out of a block
of material much like an artist would out of marble. That's when
they're not heat-treating metals like a blacksmith with a furnace so
they can harden or soften them.
"What I love the most about my job is when somebody comes to us, we're
the last thing there is. If we can't fix it, it's done, it's broke,"
Hamblin said. "You're going to have to get a new one."
Last resort indeed - when the Earth itself shakes, a few Airmen from the Aircraft Metals Technology Flight can help.