NDI: 'We are the last say'
KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- (Editor's note: This is the first 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 Air Force heavily relies on inspections to ensure the safety of billions of dollars-worth of aircraft and equipment and the thousands of Airmen who use them.
Following most component examinations, another qualified technician often steps in to recheck the work and continue the cycle. However, when the 18th Equipment Maintenance Squadron's Nondestructive Inspection Flight says a part's good to go, there's rarely second chance.
"NDI is important because we are the last say in everything we do," said Staff Sgt. Nathan Lilly, NDI technician. "Every inspection we do, we have to treat as critical because we're looking for cracks that are microscopic - invisible to the naked eye. A small crack could ultimately bring down a full aircraft if we miss it. With most jobs like with crew chiefs, they have a 'seven-level' come out and look at their work, but with us, each technician is the last say on that part, so if they say it's good, it's good. There's no rechecking it; there's no way for somebody to come see if we got the job done right."
Using multimillion-dollar equipment involving an X-ray machine, a dye that causes microscopic cracks to glow under a black light and numerous other advanced tools, Lilly said supports a wide range of different squadrons and units from all around Kadena.
"On an average weekly basis, (we inspect) 125 parts in the shop and probably another 40 line jobs, actually going out on the flightline," Lilly said. "Some weeks we could have 10 parts, and some weeks we could have 1,000 bolts, but our monthly average in the shop is around 500."
Though the shop is integral to 18th Wing flying missions, Master Sgt. Nick Ledesma, NDI section chief, said the unit supports a multitude of operations on the base.
"What we do is more of a joint effort," Ledesma said. "We aren't going to do the repairs or anything like that, but we help let the people who are going to do the repairs know precisely where those areas needing repairs are so they aren't blindly shooting in the dark."
"My favorite thing about the job is that we're not working on the same thing every week," Lilly added. "One day, we could be crawling in the intake of an F-15 (Eagle). The next day we could be at fuels. We can inspect anything that's metal. We have our hands in a little bit of everything."
However, the NDI shop brings a couple more added benefits to the table.
First, Ledesma said without knowing the exact locations of problem areas, maintenance could replace costly parts that may not be defective, wasting time, energy and potentially thousands of tax payers' dollars.
"A lot of people assume that we go out there and we find all those cracks, but 80 percent of the time, the part's good," Ledesma explained. "A lot of time we're saving money in just replacement costs that didn't need to occur. But when we do find a crack, it really depends on what's the impact if we hadn't found the crack and it hadn't been repaired?"
Additionally, with sequestration taking a heavy toll on the Air Force budget, the aging fleets that provide the U.S. with air superiority depend on the analyses the shop generates as an integral service to extending the aircraft's lifespans.
"Most of these aircraft were never designed to fly as long as they've been flying," Ledesma said. "A lot of what we do, working together with (other agencies), we play a huge role in helping to extend the lifecycles of these aircraft. We provide a lot of information to engineers concerning structural integrity of some of these aircraft, and they use a lot of it to determine the lifespan or increase their flight hours."
Though it's an extensive process that involves numerous techniques, extensive knowledge and a keen eye, Ledesma said NDI is an invaluable Department of Defense service.
"We look at ourselves as an integral part of the overall mission," Ledesma said. "Crew chiefs are out there all the time doing pre-flight inspections, so when they come across something they're unsure of, we're the ones they call."