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442d Structures Flight uses unique skills and equipment to machine aircraft wing part

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Johnathan Shellhart, a machinist with the 442d Maintenance Squadron, places a piece of stock into a CNC mill

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Johnathan Shellhart, a machinist with the 442d Maintenance Squadron, places a piece of stock into a CNC mill July 13, 2020 on Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. Shellhard helped design and build a wing spar web for an aircraft that had been down since October 2020 due to a bird strike on the wing. (US Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Bob Jennings)

A structural maintenance sticker with a skull and crossbones on the side of a black rolling toolbox.

A structural maintenance sticker is displayed on the side of a rolling toolbox in the 442d Maintenance Squadron’s aircraft structural maintenance flight July 13, 2020, on Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. The ASM flight designed and machined a wing spar web and spar cap for an aircraft that had been grounded since October 2020 due to a bird strike. (US Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Bob Jennings)

Master Sgt. Cameron Williams, left, and Staff Sgt. Johnathan Shellhart, both machinists with the 442d Maintenance Squadron, design a part on computer-aided drafting software.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Cameron Williams, left, and Staff Sgt. Johnathan Shellhart, both machinists with the 442d Maintenance Squadron, design a part on computer-aided drafting software July 13, 2020 on Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. Their expertise with machining, coupled with training on the CAD program and the squadron’s computer numerical control mill allowed them to design and build a wing spar web for an aircraft that had been down since October 2020 due to a bird strike on the wing. (US Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Bob Jennings)

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. --

In October of 2020, A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft 79-0136 may have struck a pterodactyl. Though there haven’t been widespread reports of extinct animals in the skies over Missouri, the animal that hit the leading edge of the jet’s left wing must have been big.

The A-10 “Warthog,” however, is a beast in its own right. It’s built to be survivable in just about any circumstance, including losing most of one of its wings.

Luckily, that capability didn’t get fully tested this time, but upon landing, crew chiefs discovered that the bird had punched through the skin of the leading edge and slammed so hard into the structural spar behind it that it damaged both the spar web and the spar cap.

And that’s where things got difficult.

Aircraft 136 was one of the 173 A-10s to receive a pair of enhanced wing assemblies, an update to the fleet’s aging wings. The spar web on the new wings is not the same as the original, and there were none in the supply system.

 “This is one of the worst bird strikes I’ve ever seen,” said Mr. Jack Miner, an A-10 structural engineer from the A-10 System Program Office at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, who flew to Whiteman to provide assistance and guidance. Under normal circumstances, in a case like this, a team would fly in from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and perform the repair. That team’s full schedule, however, meant that it would be another few months before they could get to Whiteman.

But, where there’s a problem, a 442d Fighter Wing maintainer almost certainly has a solution. Enter the Aircraft Structural Maintenance section chief, Master Sgt. Pete Young.

Having a jet out of commission for as long as 136 has been down doesn’t sit well with maintainers, so Young and his team got to work. They contacted the A-10 SPO, who made the determination that the 442d machinists had the unique ability to manufacture a replacement part, stemming from a combination of their years of experience with machining, their computer numerical control mill, and specialized training on computer-aided design software.

“Thankfully,” said Young, “our machinists are some of the best, and they got it done.”

The complex dimensions of the spar web meant there was some trial and error in the process. But eventually, Master Sgt. Cameron Williams and Staff Sgt. Johnathan Shellhart, both machinists with the 442d Maintenance Squadron, designed, 3D modeled, and used the shop’s CNC mill to cut out the spar.

“EWA wings are different,” said 2nd Lt. James Demboski “They don’t conform to a single repair drawing.” As an engineer, Demboski is authorized to combine multiple repair drawings to provide the maintainers with the full picture. Since this repair is considered a deviation from technical data, it requires two levels of engineering signatures to authorize. Demboski and Miner have come to Whiteman to provide those signatures.

Being on-station where the repair is occurring will help make decisions faster, Demboski said, since everyone involved in the decision process can be together in the same room, rather than waiting on emails or playing phone tag.

 “If we have the skills and resources,” Miner said, “there’s no sense waiting to get the job done.”