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Shop ensures F-15 pilots can fly with unobstructed vision

Chris Jones reconditions a wind screen for an F-15 in the canopy shop. U. S. Air Force photo by Sue Sapp

Chris Jones reconditions a wind screen for an F-15 in the canopy shop. (Air Force photo by Sue Sapp)

SSgt. Roy Nunn, Oregon Air National Guard, polishes the inside of an F-15 canopy. Sgt. Nunn has been training in the canopy shop here at Robins for the last 2 weeks. U. S. Air Force photo by Sue Sapp

SSgt. Roy Nunn, Oregon Air National Guard, polishes the inside of an F-15 canopy. Sgt. Nunn has been training in the canopy shop here at Robins for the last 2 weeks. (Air Force photo by Sue Sapp)

SSgt. Nicholas Hicks, Oregon Air National Guard, sands out pits on an F-15 canopy. Sgt.Hicks has been training in the canopy shop here at Robins for the last 2 weeks. U. S. Air Force photo by Sue Sapp

SSgt. Nicholas Hicks, Oregon Air National Guard, sands out pits on an F-15 canopy. Sgt.Hicks has been training in the canopy shop here at Robins for the last 2 weeks. (Air Force photo by Sue Sapp)

Michael Daley holds  a piece of F-15 canopy in front of a grid board that shows an imperfection caused by heat that creates a fisheye illusion. U. S. Air Force photo by Sue Sapp

Michael Daley holds a piece of F-15 canopy in front of a grid board that shows an imperfection caused by heat that creates a fisheye illusion. (Air Force photo by Sue Sapp)

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- Perhaps no other unit at Robins has a more appropriate motto than the F-15 Canopy Shop's: "Our Mission is Clear."

There are actually two canopy shops on base. The first disassembles the canopies and deals with any issues other than transparency of the acrylic canopy itself.

The other is the 561st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron's transparency shop, the one that has the "clear" mission. Its sole responsibility is to polish the canopies and ensure that there are no blemishes that could impact the pilot's view.

When the shop restores a canopy, it saves the Air Force about $350,000 from buying a new one. About 10 percent of the time, the canopies have flaws serious enough that condemnation is necessary.

It's a painstaking job that requires keen eyesight, attention to detail, and upper body strength. The shop's seven employees spend most of their day guiding an orbital sander.

It's a job they take very seriously.

"I think our motto says it all," said Mike Daley, a mechanic in the shop. "Our mission is to repair transparencies and that's what we do, and we are good at it."

Every F-15 that comes in for programmed depot maintenance has its canopy removed and taken to the shop for a transparency refurbish. The first step is to wash the canopy thoroughly and then give it a close inspection. Every scratch, mark and warp is examined and a determination is made as to whether the canopy can be restored.

"Any little speck or scratch is a distraction to the pilot so we have to remove all of that damage," he said.

A grid of metal wire on the wall is used to pinpoint distortions in the view. The workers can look through the canopy toward the grid and easily spot the distortion because the wires in the grid will appear warped.

They do not necessarily have to eliminate all distortions, just those in the critical viewing area. That is primarily just to the pilot's left, where he has to look through the glass to line up the hose for mid-air refueling.

It takes about two weeks of sanding to restore a canopy, and about three weeks total to complete the shop's work on each canopy.

They also restore the wind screen, which is the thicker, front part of the pilot's viewing area. The wind screen is where the pilot would see the heads up display, and it is also built to withstand bird strikes.

The shop also serves as a one-of-a-kind technical school. Aircraft maintainers from around the world visit the shop for an 80-hour course to get certification in canopy polishing.

The shop recently had two students in from the Oregon Air National Guard. One of those was Staff Sgt. Nicholas Hicks, who said his unit does canopy polishing periodically in between PDM cycles. The last person in their shop to be certified at Robins got the training 12 years ago, so they thought it would be a good idea to get some new people trained.

"It's definitely a hard work out," he said when taking a break from polishing a canopy. "When you are done though, it's just like looking through a brand new pair of safety glasses. It's amazing."

Ricky Baker, the flight chief over the shop, said the group displays good teamwork and dedication.

"All of them love doing what they do," he said. "They really feel like they are making a difference."