Auto Body Mechanic and Artist: The 173rd Fighter Wing Structural Maintenance
By Senior Airman Bryan Nealy, 173rd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published November 10, 2010
KLAMATH FALLS Ore. -- Adaptability is a key virtue that every unit in the Air Force must possess; and the six Drill Status Guardsman and 12 full-time Airmen of the Structural Maintenance shop thrive on it. Whether it's painting an eagle on an F-15 tail, or fabricating a key F-15 part from scratch, these Airmen can do almost anything.
Staff Sgt. Paul Allen explains, "If you spend the time to learn every aspect of this AFSC (Air Force Specialty Code), you'll be doing something different every single day. You talk about going from drawing cartoons one day, to the next day walking out to an airplane with power tools and cutting a hole in the side of it, fishing broken ribs out of the plane and fabricating a new one and heat treating it, going to reinstall it and patch it back up, and the next day you could be drawing cartoons again."
The easiest way to understand the work the Structural Maintenance Airmen perform is to picture an auto body shop.
"We do body work on airplanes. Most people can relate to an automotive body work guy, pounding out dents, replacing broken and buckled parts, and that's what we do." Master Sgt. Dave Chinander explains. "The airplanes are flown hard, they get cracks in them. We're the ones that repair all those cracks."
According to Chinander, the most common type of aircraft repair they do is on the aircraft skins. "The crew chiefs will be doing their walk arounds before flights and after flights and they'll notice a little crack or something suspicious. They'll call the NDI (Non-Destructive Inspection) shop, and they'll come out and do a scan of the area and see if it's cracked or not. If it is, they'll get a hold of us, and we'll go and cut out the bad spot and put a patch over it and fix it. And when we're done fixing it, we've got to paint it to match."
While the Airmen compare themselves to auto body workers, they can also be compared to an artist of a more traditional medium: painters. The Structural Maintenance shop is responsible for all the base markings, minuteman symbols, nose arts, crew chief and pilot names and the tail markings on the aircraft.
"Our commander is big on first impressions in the appearance of the airplanes, so that falls back onto us to keep a nice paintjob on them and keeping the tail flashes (tail markings) looking good," explains Chinander.
The most recent painting project was the redesign and repainting of the eagle logo on the tails of the F-15 aircraft. Staff Sgt. Allen designed the new tail flash three years ago when he arrived at Kingsley Field.
"I wanted to update the look of it because each one was kind of different; some of them were pretty sloppy looking. I had a lot of experience doing computer graphics and paint schemes. I've painted anniversary airplanes for the Air National Guard for paint competitions and for morale projects, so they just kind of turned me loose on it," said Allen.
Prior to the new design, the eagle logo was applied to the aircraft tail by taping and tracing around a large plastic template. The process wasn't very precise and the logos looked fairly generic and weren't completely uniform. With the help of computer design technology, Allen was able to add more detail to the logo and ensure that every single tail flash was identical. "We have a digital plotter where we can print out the stencil, rather than the big giant stencils they used to tape up there. We print them off on removable vinyl, and spray everything on, so each tail comes out looking the same."
Along with painting the aircraft, the Structural Maintenance crew is busy painting all the Aerospace Ground Equipment. Previously all the AGE gear on base was painted green. The Air Force realized that most of the AGE is used on a concrete flight line, so they are being painted grey to be more tactical.
When one thinks of a maintenance man, the term artist might not be the first word that comes to mind. However, the Airmen in the Structural Maintenance shop possess a rare combination of mechanical ability and artistic vision that is uncommon in the military. The Airmen of the Structural Maintenance shop are without a doubt the renaissance men of the 173rd Fighter Wing, and they embrace their versatility.
"I think it takes an artistic person to excel at fabricating parts and to learn tooling techniques. This job combined all my favorite things to do in one AFSC. I always have a great time doing it," added Allen.