Rust and corrosion are the mortal enemies of metal. They infiltrate, weaken and sap the usefulness.
And when those culprits attack Air Force aircraft, the effects can be devastating. That’s where the Air Force Corrosion Control Office comes in. The unit, stationed at Robins Air Force Base, is not staffed with caped crusaders, but it does have a cadre of well-schooled people armed with the latest information and techniques. Their job is to share that expertise throughout the Air Force.
“We work with corrosion managers at all the major commands,” reported Capt. Mary Gutierrez, lead corrosion engineer for the local office. “They, in turn, filter things down to the field units. But we also take questions from field units daily, so we try to interface with all of them.”
That interface is critical in today’s Air Force. Airmen are flying and maintaining the oldest fleet in Air Force history, with some aircraft in the fourth and fifth decade of service. With budget constraints preventing wholesale purchase of new systems, the corrosion prevention mission has assumed even greater importance.
The questions from the field are usually practical ones – questions about paints, primers, pretreatments, aircraft wash materials, solvents, plastic media blasting.
“A lot of the time it is questions about how they can do things faster and cheaper,” noted Senior Master Sgt. Scott Pagenkopf, the Air Force corrosion program manager. “We have the experience on almost anything out there.”
The 17-member office has virtually all the bases covered. Two senior non-commissioned officers have years of experience as aircraft maintainers. Half of the office is a contract employee staffed by retired senior enlisted members who spent their Air Force careers in corrosion control or structural maintenance. Engineers fill the remaining slots.
They have their hands full. A recent Defense Department study completed in 2009 showed that $5.4 billion are spent every year to prevent or correct corrosion on aircraft and missiles.
The current war in Southwest Asia is not making the job any easier. The sand, dust and salt air all take their toll.
“A study we did several years ago showed the sand over there to be more corrosive than the sand we find in our desert environment,” said Gutierrez. “The sand particles are much finer.”
The preferred sand-removal technique in the battle zone is vacuuming rather than washing. “If we mix that sand with water, it can create a worse corrosion environment,” she pointed out.
When aircraft return to the U.S., the process continues. “We ask that (maintainers) first clean out the aircraft as best they can before they wash it,” Gutierrez added. “We also ask that they wash the aircraft before they depart on deployment.”
The annual Air Force Corrosion Control Conference set for August 16-18 at the Museum of Aviation at Robins is a focal point for information exchange. It will draw more than 250 visitors from throughout the Defense Department and private industry along with some 70 exhibitors.
“We will also have an area for training that will help make the job easier and more streamlined for our field-level people,” Pagenkopf said. “The conference gives us a chance to get together with people in the field and show them what’s coming down the road.”
Devices to better probe the aircraft’s internal crevices and crannies will be one prominent subject at the three-day meeting. Maintainers in the field already have boroscopes that aid in the process. The latest innovation calls for developing different attachments to expand that capability.
“We’re trying to find one (attachment) that can vacuum out water, small debris as well as sand,” Gutierrez said. “We’re also trying to find other attachments that can remove corrosion or apply corrosion preventative compounds.”
Knowledge is power in the corrosion prevention business, particularly as aircraft age and the fighting environment proves hostile.
“That’s why we’ve been trying to find new technologies,” she stressed, “and making sure the best corrosion practices are spread around the Air Force.”