Aircraft structural maintainers provide unmatched expertise, keep Kadena aircraft airborne
KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- (Editor's note: This is the last feature article in a three-part series highlighting the Airmen and teams within the 18th Equipment Maintenance Squadron and how they are essential to the mission of Kadena Air Base and the stability of the Asia-Pacific region.)
The reliability of every aircraft depends on the integrity of each component, from the tiniest rivets and bolts to the wings and fuselage themselves.
As many parts bend, break or corrode over time, the Airmen from the 18th Equipment Maintenance Squadron's Aircraft Structural Maintenance Flight step in to repair or replace the faulty equipment - often saving the Air Force thousands of dollars in the process.
"We literally work on everything on the flightline," said Tech. Sgt. Charles Dickeson, 18th EMS aircraft structural maintenance supervisor and Idaho native. "We fabricate pretty much anything the flightline needs."
Though they don't machine or weld components, the shop can build just about anything an aircraft needs using everything from fiberglass and aluminum to titanium and carbon fiber.
"We work with composites as well, so we can make things out of fiberglass, carbon fiber, (and) boron," said Tech. Sgt. Doug Maleski, 18th EMS aircraft structural maintenance supervisor who hails from Maryland. "We're like that guy down the street (who) tinkers in his garage and comes out with something nice."
Though it's challenging, Dickeson said the unit boasts exceptional Airmen with exceptional talent.
"We make the impossible happen," Dickeson said. "Getting a part that's just completely destroyed, remaking it to its original (specifications) and putting it back on the aircraft ... it takes a lot of skill."
"We can remake the entire part and put it back in the aircraft, and it would look like every other part that came from the factory," Maleski added. "A lot of it is repairing something that everybody says you can't."
Maleski said that similar to most other maintenance career fields, the unit often has to rely on each other to get the job done. Therefore, communication is paramount to the mission's success.
"A lot of the jobs are 48 hours all the way up to 106 hours long, so you've got to go through multiple shifts, and everybody's got to be on the same page," Maleski said. "If one person misses a step, the rest of it starts going downhill. Everybody's got to understand what the process is, and everybody's got to do the job, for the most part, the same."
However, unlike many other units, there are many ways to accomplish a single task, meaning the ASM flight has to search for the most efficient means of getting the job done.
"It's kind of hard when you've got four to six to eight different people who are all thinking about things differently because our job gives you so much freedom," Maleski continued. "You can do the same process differently among 30 different people. There's a lot of ways to get the job done, but you've got to find the best solution."
Just like the rest of the Air Force, sequestration, an aging fleet and limited manning take their toll on the Airmen at the ASM flight.
However, despite decreased funding for replacement tools, parts and supplies, the unit is constantly subject to an array of duties that require exceptional critical thinking and deductive reasoning to overcome unique problems.
"A lot of the technical data wasn't written for the type of situations that we're getting into now because the aircraft weren't supposed to be around this far into their lifespan, so now we have a lot of repairs we need to do that aren't in the tech data," Maleski said. "We have to contact the engineers and extend some processes a few days."
To the unit, some of the most important assets are some of the smallest tools: drill bits. Because the items only last for a handful of jobs after drilling thousands of holes daily in such hard metals, Dickeson said problem solving is crucial.
"There's an art form to our job," Dickeson said. "Some people have it; some people don't. It's a very large thought process to do this job. We have aging aircraft that require a lot more maintenance. We run into a wall, and we have to figure a way around it that doesn't violate tech data. Sometimes it gets a little difficult."
Whether it's replacing a $3 bolt or repairing a $1.5 million KC-135 Stratotanker aileron, the 18th EMS ASM Flight gives the U.S. Air Force an unmatched reach and presence in the Asia Pacific Region and is vital to the successful mission of the 18th Wing.