CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, New Mexico --
As resilient and durable as the U.S. Air Force’s aircraft are today, they are still susceptible to damage from the result of day-to-day mission operations. The responsibility of repairing these impaired aircraft and ensuring their structural integrity before returning them to the fight falls on the shoulders of Aircraft Structural Maintenance.
“We fabricate and repair any structural metal or composite damage,” said Tech. Sgt. David Desporte, 27th Special Operations Maintenance Squadron aircraft structural maintenance section chief. “We also fix aerodynamic flaws, remove and install specialized fasteners, fabricate tubing and cable assemblies, treat structural corrosion and paint aircraft assemblies.”
With that many facets of the job, the technicians are required to have a vast knowledge of numerous aerospace materials such as different kinds of metals, plastics, fiber glass and composite structural components. Those materials combined with the technicians’ expertise are essential to repairing multiple airframes and are sometimes even used in additional side projects.
“The people in my section are qualified to work on any aircraft here at Cannon,” Desporte said. “The skills that we obtain through training are also beneficial in other areas. We are often consulted to help other agencies on base with any project that requires fabricating metal or composite structures.”
Not limited to working solely on ‘active’ aircraft, the 27th SOMXS Aircraft Structural Maintenance shop was recently restoring a MH-53 Pave Low helicopter for static display by the front gate.
As Desporte points out, there were unique parameters to overcome with this type of project.
“The challenges were finding good parts to go on this aircraft and repairing all of the damage from its time spent at the bone yard,” Desporte said. “Also, working with old components like the blades that were deemed as waste at one point and building them back into an aesthetically pleasing part. Any flaw in these parts will be picked away at by the experts and ‘old timers’ that used to work on these helicopters. So we had to make sure that it looks right.”
The finalization of the MH-53 included the team sanding over any of the aircraft’s coarse edges to give it a smooth, sleek appearance before priming it for a fresh coat of paint: a desert-storm scheme consisting of tan and brown, the colors it was painted during its deployment period in the Middle East.
This beginning-to-end project, spanning over several weeks, proved to be a textbook subject for the younger Airmen on the team to sharpen a number of required skills.
“Refurbishing this old helicopter played a huge role in getting 23 younger Airmen their upgrade training,” Desporte said. “We don’t do a lot of full paints or touch ups here. In fact, this might be the only full-paint job these Airmen will ever see at Cannon. With this aircraft, they got to take this project from start to finish. It helped them get more than qualified on every aspect of painting.”
Some of those very same Airmen were even younger than the aircraft itself. Conversely, for Tech. Sgt. George Mayo, 27th SOMXS corrosion control NCO in charge, the project provided a connection to the past.
“I worked on this aircraft for six great years,” Mayo said. “I loved working on it and hated to see it retire. So when the chance came to go to the boneyard and pick out this aircraft I jumped all over it. Having the opportunity to lead my guys in the paint restoration with putting the desert storm scheme on was a thrill and brought back some great memories.”
Mayo will get to drive past the restored aircraft, along with everyone else coming through the front gate, once it is officially on display Jan. 17, 2017. For him, the sight will be a symbol of pride.
“The MH-53 Pave Low is a bird that will always be near and dear to my heart and I’m so proud to have it on display here at Cannon,” Mayo said.