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Making Something Out of Nothing

117th Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Shop

Tech. Sgt. Clay Finley, machinist, 117th Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Shop, prepares to cut a piece of metal at Sumpter Smith Air National Guard Base, Birmingham, Ala., August 10, 2017. The shop makes parts not currently produced or available to assist the maintenance mission. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Farson)

117th Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Shop

Airman 1st Class Trevor Christian, aircraft metals technologist, fabricates a newly cut piece of metal at Sumpter Smith Air National Guard Base, Birmingham, Ala., August 10, 2017. The shop is able to make parts not currently being produced or available to assist the maintenance mission. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Farson)

117th Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Shop

Tech. Sgt. Clay Finley (left), machinist, 117th Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Shop and Airman 1st Class Trevor Christian, aircraft metals technologist, inspect a newly cut piece of metal at Sumpter Smith Air National Guard Base, Birmingham, Ala., August 10, 2017. The shop is able to make parts not currently being produced or available to assist the maintenance mission. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Farson)

117th Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Shop

Tech. Sgt. Clay Finley, machinist, 117th Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Shop, prepares to cut a piece of metal at Sumpter Smith Air National Guard Base, Birmingham, Ala., August 10, 2017. The shop makes parts not currently produced or available to assist the maintenance mission. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Farson)

117th Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Shop

Tech. Sgt. Clay Finley, machinist, 117th Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Shop, prepares to cut a piece of metal at Sumpter Smith Air National Guard Base, Birmingham, Ala., August 10, 2017. The shop makes parts not currently produced or available to assist the maintenance mission. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Farson)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. --

Metals technology Airmen here at the 117th Air Refueling Wing know how to be innovative.  Some of their job descriptions are the same as engineers and programmers. The shop has various pieces of equipment from manual lathes to welding tools, each requiring a different skillset in itself.

“We can take a block of metal on the ground and turn it into anything our imagination will allow,” said Tech. Sgt. Clay Finley, a machinist from the 117th Maintenance Squadron Fabrications Shop.

This ability assists making grounded KC-135R aircraft in the 117 ARW airworthy again.

Ordering replacement parts for aircraft that are approaching 70 years old can prove difficult because manufacturers stop producing the parts.  When a new one is not attainable, the Air Force can utilize parts from retired and unused cannibalized planes, but the needed part may have already been stripped from it. When both manufacturer-made and cannibalized sources come up empty, aircraft maintenance turns to metals technology, also known as the machine shop.

“That’s why we are here,” said Finley.  “We make those parts.”

A new addition to the shop is the Computer Numerical Control mill.  Since introducing this technology in November 2016, the shop has been able to be more efficient in getting the 117 ARW’s fleet in the air and accomplishing its mission.

“Using a manual mill turning knobs to cut into metal could take hours, but once we get our measurements with this machine it takes minutes,” said Finley. “On top of that, once we save the part to a file it is there forever.”

Airmen in the shop take measurements of the unserviceable part utilizing calipers and micrometers to enter the information in a computer equipped with computer-aided design software.  A three-dimensional image is displayed on the computer screen representing how the final product will look.  This information is then brought from the computer to the milling machine by way of information transfer. It is then converted to numbers similar to grid coordinates which control the movement of the cutter.  

“My favorite part of the job is the job itself,” said Finley. “Here we get to work with our hands and make something out of nothing.”

While the CNC mill is a big step toward getting the shop to modern times, the Airmen are what really drive its success. 
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