Generating Airpower: Hidden in the cracks
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- (This article is part of a series featuring the 35th Maintenance Group on their ability to generate airpower for the 35th Fighter Wing's Wild Weasels. The 35 MXG is compiled of 22 career fields that support the mission of the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, the only SEAD wing in Pacific Air Forces.)
There's a group of Airmen here who specialize in finding their way into the deepest, most unfamiliar areas of a U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon. It's only fitting they emulate that role as a shop, staying mostly hidden and unknown across base.
"You don't hear too much about us," said Staff Sgt. Timothy Schwenning, 35th Maintenance Squadron. "No one really knows about us until they have to meet us."
Those who meet Schwenning and his Nondestructive Inspection team know just how big a role they play in the success of keeping well-conditioned jets in the air for the 35th Fighter Wing. While most maintainers work to fix what's already broken, the NDI shop stays a few steps ahead.
"What we do is preventative maintenance - finding cracks on the aircraft or any structural component that might touch the aircraft itself," Schwenning said. "We're looking to find flaws before they affect serviceability."
Schwenning's supervisor, Tech. Sgt. Richard Parsons, 35 MXS NDI craftsman, called it "maintaining structural integrity," and said F-16s are the shop's priority.
"We'll receive [F-16] parts within a scheduled timeframe they're known to flaw, and we inspect them using the different disciplines we have," Parsons said. He said those disciplines revolve mainly around four inspections: fluorescent penetration, x-rays, eddy current and ultrasonic inspections.
With a fleet of 44 F-16s split between the 13th and 14th Fighter Squadrons, each jet sees a significant amount of flying hours and faces natural wear and tear over time. The likely-to-flaw parts generally arrive on a scheduled basis, but that's not always the case.
"We have the ability inspect literally any part across base, so we have to be ready for anything," Parsons said. "Some days we'll get a call with someone saying, 'Hey, we think this part has a crack, we need you to take a look.'"
This type of workflow results in NDI performing more than 1,000 inspections annually, and Schwenning sees each task like a patient rather than a part.
"We're kind of like the doctor for the jets; we're taking x-rays, performing ultrasonic inspections, and identifying issues," Schwenning said. "It's more the science aspect of getting the job done."
Sporting a protective mask and a full-length science apron, Schwenning looks more like a surgeon when in action. Of their four main inspections, fluorescent penetration is the most eye-catching. Executed in a stationary magnetic particle unit, each inspected part is submerged in mineral oil and iron shavings. The part is then magnetized, and if there are any cracks, magnetism pulls the iron shavings to that area, exposing the cracks in a luminous, neon-green line highlighted under a black light.
Bright lights and vivacious colors aside, bringing such a diminutive detail to life can be the difference between losing and saving a life.
"One crack could splinter off and go the entire length of a part and force it to fail," Parsons said. "If we weren't around doing our job, there's a potential loss of aircraft or even life."
Along with discovering cracks in structure, another critical part of the NDI career field is the Joint Oil Analysis Program. The JOAP runs unique tests every 25 hours to determine metal levels in the jet's oil. These tests are relayed to maintainers to compare with their technical orders to ensure there are no flaws occurring within the jet's engine. It's a never-ending process that never loses its allure.
"There's great satisfaction in knowing that I'm helping the mission," Schwenning said. "For such a small part, we have a huge impact."
Much like their work, it's what's found on the inside that can make the biggest difference on what's seen the outside.
"We could tie our work into everything - saving lives, saving airframes - it comes down to knowing the impact our job has later on down the road," Parsons said. "We may not see the end-all picture in front of us, but we know our impact when we see the sortie rates, flying hours and bombs dropped, it all comes together in the end."