An ultra-bright, ultra-hot light comes out of the torch, followed by hundreds of sparks flying through the air and a thick crackling noise spitting from the rapidly-heated metal, ending as quickly as it began.
The Airman flips his the dark, square mask, checks the dimensions of his weld, and quietly says “Nice,” to himself.
What may seem like a unique and exciting display of work to many Airmen is just another day on the job for the 51st Maintenance Squadron aircraft metals technology shop.
“These guys have a skill where they can in fact become a true craftsman, and that’s hard to find in today’s Air Force,” said Master Sgt. Kevin Betts, 51st MXS aircraft metals technology shop section chief.
In the true spirit of a trade craftsman, aircraft metals tech Airmen know how to efficiently operate more than just a welding torch. The different equipment they have allows them to fashion everything from a small, unique bolt or screw to large panels, intricately and precisely cut by a computer-operated machine based off of designs Airmen enter by hand.
“Anything that people need, we can make,” said Senior Airman Kelly Huddleston, 51st MXS aircraft metals technology shop journeyman. “Anyone can walk up to us and say ‘Hey, I need this,’ and we’ll be able to make it for them.”
The diversity in capabilities means that no two shifts in the shop are ever the same. Some days might see them mass-producing the same item for use across base while others require the metals tech Airmen to work side-by-side with crew chiefs or specialists on the flightline.
“Every day is different,” said Huddleston. “We can have a set schedule of what we’re going to do for the day, but then calls come in over the radio and we have to go out and basically save the day.”
The impact the shop has can also vary, with some jobs making other Airmen’s lives easier and others having Air Force-wide implications, such as fixing a canopy issue that prevented the 51st Fighter Wing’s A-10 Thunderbolt IIs from being able to fly.
“This shop made over a 100 bushings in a week, which is unprecedented, and literally restored ‘Fight Tonight’ capabilities and got the A-10 back in the air,” said Betts. “This started an Air Force-wide inspection, so we were really at the forefront of that.”
A unique aspect of aircraft metals tech Airmen is how many of them also do it as a hobby in their free time. The creativity and hands-on nature of the job naturally encourage many people to get into metallurgy off-duty, with upwards of 20 percent of any given group of metals tech Airmen actively practicing it as a hobby, says Betts.
Occasionally, the ability to enjoy the job runs even deeper than meshing with personality traits like creativity; for Huddleston, it runs in his blood.
His grandfather performed the same duties for commercial aircraft, such as the McDonnell Douglas DC-10s, for many years, even contributing to the construction of a space shuttle for NASA, while Huddleston contributes to the well-being of Team Osan’s F-16 Fighting Falcons and A-10 Thunderbolt IIs.
“This is an awesome job, and most of the guys really love it and have a passion for it,” said Betts. “Most them really excel because when you have a passion for your job, it’s as if you’re working for free.”