ER for the Air Force

  • Published
  • By Tim Kurtz
  • Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex Operations Management

Unbeknownst to many, the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex has an emergency room.

But Robins’ “ER” isn’t staffed with medical doctors and nurses. It’s manned by engineers, engineering technicians and scientists.

The Lab Production Flight in the 402nd Maintenance Support Group’s 802nd Maintenance Support Squadron has earned its ER comparison. It has done so by expertly handling crisis cases since the 1950s.

The 802nd performs material/engineering tests, chemical testing and calibration services. It not only handles cases for WR-ALC, the Air Force and Department of Defense customers, but it also contracts with any organization, public or private, that needs the flight’s highly-regarded, problem-solving expertise.

Randy Broach, chief of the lab flight, said he picked up the ER equivalence from his squadron director, Jay Wood. And Broach wholeheartedly agrees with the analogy.

“We are an emergency room for the Air Force,” Broach said, “because any given day the Air Force can come in and say, ‘We need to get this requirement accomplished,’ and we will do it.

“We primarily support the depot and the (system program offices),” Broach said. “We support about every single organization on base, and we have capabilities to do more.”

Broach, a professional engineer, said the flight’s personnel have reached an impressive level of proficiency and are gaining more all the time. That’s why MXSG wants to attract more work from private industry. The group intends to get the word out about its laboratory capabilities so more outside organizations will contact the base business office seeking the flight’s services.

“Each lab has a specific purpose, but with the capacity and capability to perform other functions, which is what we are branching out into,” Broach said. “It’s still not common knowledge. We don’t get those requests often. We want to make sure people know what we can do so we can get those requests. We love to do the work. And we can save people money and time.”

The flight tackles high-tech crises in three elements: the Chemical Lab, Failure Analysis/Engineering Test Group, and First Article Test.

The three labs are made up of 60 people; scientists – particularly chemists, and mechanical, electrical, material and chemical engineers. Material engineers are particularly prevalent.

“We have an insane amount of expertise in the group,” Broach said. “There are some really outstanding, knowledgeable folks on the team. They’re doing nothing but getting better. As we remove constraints from the process, they are just getting faster and better. The folks we have here work really hard.”

The flight chief said his team is trying to “bring in some young blood” to keep the expertise level high. The flight lost five people in “hard to fill positions” to retirements early in the year. Two chemists and two material engineers have been hired since then and were quickly brought up to speed by the experienced lab personnel.

Despite the loss of personnel, the 802nd pros have stayed ahead in the many, varied and complex aspects of their work within the flight’s three elements.


First Article Test

A first article is an initial sample part from a machine or system supplied by the manufacturer. The First Article Test element, or FAT Lab, does dimensional, material and electrical analysis to verify that parts meet required specifications and standards to do the intended job.

“That skill set leads to the reverse engineering skill set,” Broach said.

The FAT Lab also does spectrum analysis in its Spectroscopy Lab. Spectroscopy is the science and practice of using spectrometers and spectroscopes to analyze spectra, which is produced when material interacts with or emits electromagnetic radiation. These techniques are used in chemical analysis and in studies of the properties of atoms, molecules and ions.

Broach said first article testing is an “incredibly necessary part of the process,” especially in these times of aged weapon systems. He said the FAT Lab has done from 500 up to 1,300 tests in one fiscal year. This past fiscal year, the lab projected doing close to 900 projects. By the end of September, not only had the team completed 871 projects due in FY17, it also had finished 66 projects for October of FY18 and was already working on projects due in November of FY18.

“We have a fairly robust team for first article test,” Broach said. “We have gotten very proficient at doing those very fast.”

Other operations conducted within the FAT Lab include physical property testing, material analysis and identification of metal alloys, and analytical instrumentation for quantitative analysis of metal alloys.

A good example of the work done within the First Article element comes from the Metrology Lab. Metrology is the science of weights and measures.

            In this case, the lab was tasked to solve a problem with the brake adjuster for a trailer that loads munitions for the B-1 bomber.

Chad Campbell, the 802nd MXSS mechanical engineer/test engineer who handled the brake adjuster job, said the base support equipment office sent the task to the FAT lab. The reason for the assignment: there was no source of supply and not enough information to buy or make the part needed for the fix.

At the start, Campbell had an incomplete drawing of the adjuster and a useable “good part.” He took the good brake adjuster apart and measured it with tools in the shop. Then, he produced a 3-D scan to create a model and used reverse engineering to make a prototype and check the fit of a gear. He figured the dimensional characteristics of the gear, then, created a drawing so the part could be procured.

“The ultimate end goal is Air Force-level detail drawings and a technical data package,” Jeffrey Hunter, a dimensional analyst/chemical engineer in the 802nd, said.

Hunter said they really don’t need to know what the part does for first article testing. Sometimes the lab technicians know the name of the part and can check to verify it meets drawings or specification requirements without knowing what its use is. Other times, such as for failure analysis, they need to know the part’s function.

Most first articles the lab works are for weapon systems supported on Robins, Hunter said.

“Basically, we’re checking parts before a contractor mass produces the part. Pretty much everything we do is for direct support,” he said.

“Even the outside work we get is for DoD stuff,” Campbell added.

Campbell and Hunter said the brake adjuster project cut across more than one element of the 802nd, but showing how the work was accomplished only scratched the surface of what can be done in the FAT lab.

“There’s a whole lot of capability here we didn’t even touch,” he said.

 “A good reason for people to know about us here; we perform a lot of what outside contractors do, but we can do it all and save money,” Campbell said. “I think for purposes of workload, it does matter that people know what we’re doing. I think we’re an under-utilized Air Force capability.”

“We’re so versatile here we have the capability to do it all in one shop. Contractors are more specialized,” Hunter said.


Failure Analysis/Engineering Test Group element

Broach said the 802nd’s failure analysis lab is the only one of its kind in the entire Air Force.

The lab does much more than figuring out why equipment fails. It does engineering tests, Non-Destructive Inspection training and qualification; and planning, scheduling and lab support.

This laboratory performs testing of material hardness and tensile, as well as G-force testing. It utilizes analytical techniques such as Optical Microscopy, Scanning Electron Microscopy and Energy Dispersive X-ray Analysis.

The lab’s engineering test and analysis capabilities include environmental stress testing, unique mechanical/electrical testing, fatigue testing, first article support and prototype manufacture.

The laboratory features a complete machine shop. Various fixtures to support engineering tests can be developed on the spot, greatly reducing testing and re-work time.

Broach said the failure analysis lab does a lot of testing on “coupons,” which usually are samples of metal pieces that need to be tested for factors such as strength, size or dimension.

An exemplary case being handled in the Failure Analysis element came to Robins from Shaw AFB, S.C., home of the 20th Fighter Wing and three F-16CM Fighting Falcon squadrons.

Daniel Doak, a U.S. Air Force Reserve major and a mechanical engineer in the failure analysis materials flight, said personnel at Shaw AFB discovered some training missile fins were missing and found the parts on the ground. Doak’s job was to study the fins and determine what caused the parts to come off the missiles and, importantly, why the same fin came off three separate missiles.

Doak said he was attempting to speculate the cause of failure by studying the makeup of the part and verifying its material properties. His aim is to determine if it was an isolated incident, if further inspections of the missile inventory are necessary, or if the parts needed to be removed or replaced.

“So I’m going for the root cause,” Doak said.

The engineer said safety, efficiency and costs are among the most important aspects of the analysis work he performs.

Hunter provided another example of the failure analysis lab’s special capabilities. Explosive Atmosphere Testing is done in the Tinney 4D5 explosive atmosphere chamber. It proves devices like medical lights or electronic equipment onboard an aircraft can operate in a fuel-rich environment without causing an explosion.


Chemical Lab

Setting the chemical lab apart from the other two 802nd flight elements is the visual presence of ages-old laboratory stereotypes – lab coats and beakers. The use of such old-school lab gear is part of a story of consistency in analytical excellence that dates back to the 1950s.

Bruce Bundrick, an Air Force shelf life executive agent in the 802nd MXSS, said the area between buildings 110 and 125 is the second oldest facility on base.

The chemical lab’s core capability is in classical wet chemistry, which includes maintenance support analysis of fuels, hydraulic fluid, plating shop elements, industrial oil, and C-130 propeller foam density.

Beyond wet chemistry, the lab also specializes in a wide array of analytical capabilities and techniques. Some of those include polarized light microscopy, scanning electron microscopy with elemental analysis, X-ray fluorescence, Fourier Transform Infrared spectroscopy, gas chromatography and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry, inductively coupled plasma, and thermal analysis.

Laura Preiss, a chemist, said much of the chemical lab’s work is done in “direct support of getting aircraft out the door.”

Some examples of the work done for the complex maintenance mission are:

·         The lab tests compressed breathing air apparatus used for operations like the aircraft paint/depaint shop.

·         OSHA swipe testing for particulate contamination to surfaces is conducted by the lab to monitor worker exposure to hazardous chemicals in areas where grinding is done.

·         Joint Oil Analysis Program (JOAP) tests are done on aircraft engine oil post flight. The analysis ensures flight safety by checking for metals in the oil.

·         The lab utilizes a Salt Spray Chamber, testing corrosion on parts by simulating exposure to salt atmosphere and aging.

Preiss said the chemical lab’s extensive abilities are often a surprise to others. “We always show up for a meeting somewhere and get folks who say, ‘Oh, can you do this?’ and the answer is often, ‘Yes, or we can get one of our other labs to do it’.”

Bundrick said the lab does work for customers DoD-wide and contractors, which are typically DoD connected. He, too, espoused the ER comparison.

“We’re like the emergency room,” Bundrick said. “You must have excess capacity that’s avaliable so when an emergency hits, you can take care of it. The customer can’t wait.”

Max Hetzer, a chemist/chemical engineer known by his colleagues as “The Doctor,” said the chemical lab can do the work of contractors in rapid time “depending on the complexity of the samples.” He said the team there is capable of a three-day average turnaround on “basically anything that comes to the lab.”

“We’re pretty much customer focused, and that’s how it’s supposed to be,” Bundrick said. “We have to take care of the customer. Sometimes that’s telling the customer something they don’t know.

“It sounds cliché and everybody says it,” Bundrick said, “but at the end of the day I’m doing my little piece of the puzzle so someone out there working in hazardous conditions can get their job done.”