ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --
Eight Airmen from Team JSTARS at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, recently designed an innovative tool estimated to save the Air Force nearly $500k a year in cowling repairs for the E-8C Joint STARS aircraft.
The cowling fixture table, an approved tool intended for field-level repairs, was a response to a challenge set by leadership.
“The supply system could not meet the demand requirements for these cowlings,” said Col. Robert Nash, commander of the 116th Maintenance Group, Georgia Air National Guard. “We needed a sufficient capacity to support the warfighter.”
The cowling — the metal covering of the engine — is an integral part of an aircraft, and replacing a cowling comes at the tune of $80k per set.
“A bad cowling throws off the aerodynamics and could cause further damage,” said Master Sgt. Ryan Page, supervisor of the 116th Air Control Wing aircraft structural maintenance section within the fabrication flight.
Since a warped cowling renders the housing unsafe, close-enough isn’t a fix and the set would be turned in as unserviceable. One of biggest perks of the fixture is the ability to fix bent corners of the engine cowling with precision. The table includes a hydraulic press and measuring grid for accuracy to 1/8 inch, shared the structural maintenance technicians.
In addition, the maintenance table saves maintainers’ man-hours by doing multiple repairs on a cowling at the same time, enabled by the jig holding it in place. This translates to saving the 16 JSTARS and their crews from unplanned downtime when the aircraft are constantly needed for real-world missions, training, and planned maintenance.
The table started merely as an idea, a desire for improvement during a meeting of the minds, shared the Airmen.
“The professional skillset of the team enabled us to take one person’s vision and create something practical,” said Page, who was also the team coordinator.
The cowling fixture operators noted the more secure and safer benefits of using the table.
“The whole machine is adjustable,” said Staff Sgt. Quinn Smith, a sheet metal technician with the 116th Aircraft Structural Maintenance Section, admiring the handiwork of his teammates. “It’s pretty ingenious.”
Airmen from the structural maintenance section came to their Guard and active-duty comrades in the aircraft metals technology section to discuss their needs. The metal experts designed and built it in a week, based on a description and list of requirements.
“That job was the culmination of every skill we use,” said Tech. Sgt. Luke Kessinger, an aviation metals technology craftsman in the 116th Aircraft Metals Technology Section and the lead metals technician for the project.
Using refurbished items, the team built the table for about $400, according to Kessinger.
It would have cost around $300k to have a similarly capable table made by contractors, Page said.
Every detail they could think of was accounted for and tested on this table.
The design even took into account the finer details, such as the vitally important need to protect the rivet heads, noted Airman 1st Class Joseph Pierce, a sheet metal technician in the 116th Aircraft Structural Maintenance Section.
As good as it is, the table is still being improved as it’s put into practice. And the Airmen will have plenty of practice.
The cowling issue has plagued the JSTARS mission for years and has been one of its biggest weak points, according to Nash. Since the problem couldn’t be solved on the supply side, it was maintenance that took up the slack, extending the life of the cowlings on hand.
“What good maintainers do is attack their weakness, and they make it their strength,” he said. “The mentality these maintainers have is that no matter what their circumstances are, they are never out of the fight. They are going to figure out how to make it, build it, or otherwise produce it.”
Innovations such as the cowling fixture are one of many from able-minded, skilled professionals across the U.S. Air Force.
If a commander wants innovation, the people need the funding and time to find better ways of doing things, according to Nash.
“At the end of the day, when you put all this together — the ingenuity, the resourcing and the time — the dividends on the backside of that are huge,” he said. “You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is.”