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NEWS | June 1, 2009

Fluorescent findings keep aircraft flying

By James Bowman 437th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Black lights, green liquid and aircraft parts makeup a recipe for success for one base work center.

Ensuring sound structural integrity for both weapon and non-weapon system assets, the 437th Maintenance Squadron's non-destructive inspections lab inspects a wide variety of parts from C-17s and aerospace ground equipment, such as ground generators or vehicle transmissions.

The key advantage of NDI is there is no need to remove or break down internal or external parts to inspect them. Parts vary from those weighing hundreds of pounds and designed to hold the C-17's main landing gear, to a two-inch bolt that weighs only ounces.

To accomplish these inspections, the NDI lab uses six different inspection disciplines to ensure maintenance integrity, which also allows inspectors to avoid taking the aircraft apart. They also employ the disciplines of X-rays, magnetics, bond testing, eddy current, dye penetrates and ultrasonics.

NDI Airmen attend a 10-week technical school where they learn the theory of magnetic particles and dye penetrate, as well as X-ray and spectrometric analyses programs.

To keep Charleston C-17s in the air, the NDI lab has 13 people assigned to its section; nine active-duty military members, two Air Reserve technicians and two civilians who inspect more than 40,000 weapon system and non-weapon system components annually. Parts are analyzed as to whether they need an inspection based on Air Force technical data established by engineers for reliability, stringently followed by the Air Force.

The Air Force benefits from the NDI lab in numerous ways, said Tech. Sgt. Charles Christopher, NCO in charge of NDI.

Technicians can go inside the body of an aircraft and check the body integrity and can catch things before they can turn into a real problem, he added.

The process entails analyzing a part to evaluate its condition, going to the technical data via technical orders and following the instructions on what inspection to perform. This will determine what type of equipment settings to use so the soundest inspection, meeting Air Force standards, is achieved. This preventive maintenance helps eliminate problems and identifies discrepancies prior to flight.

Just finding a small crack on an aircraft could cost lives and money, according to NDI technicians.

"Our job is important," said Senior Airman Lilia Linares, a non-destructive inspection journeyman. "We are preventing catastrophic failure with aircraft mishaps."

There are multiple bases in the Air Force that provide NDI support to the C-17 mission, but Charleston is the only base used to test parts.

"Our NDI lab is fortunate," said Sergeant Christopher. "Charleston is the test base before going Air Force wide. We are the premier C-17 base and work hand-in-hand with engineers developing new techniques and engineering theories [and asking] who wants to put a new part into play."