CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, New Mexico --
There’s a cacophony of noise emanating out of building 22 on base. Mallets striking bolts, grinding metal, sparks peppering the floor, the hiss of air compressors. The shop is bustling with work. Problems need fixing and the Airmen and civilian of the 27th Special Operations Maintenance Squadron Aircraft Metals Technology shop are constantly in demand.
On any given day, the shop may need to create bushings for a certain aircraft, remove broken pieces from a section of a refueling rod, or fill hair-line cracks in the housing of an aircraft ground equipment air compressor. Every Airman in the shop needs to know how to work all the different pieces of equipment and that can be a long process depending on how fast the person learns.
“This job has a lot of critical thinking skills and there’s a lot of math involved,” said Airman 1st Class Christopher Brown, 27 SOMXS AMT apprentice. “It’s not something that comes easily for everyone. We have to train on every piece of equipment and they all have something that’s complicated about them.”
Brown says that the lathe, a machine that rotates an object against changeable cutting tools, has been the hardest machine to learn so far in his training. The tolerances for a lathe can be extremely thin, a thousandths of an inch or more. Because these precision machines have such little tolerances, the shop can basically fabricate any solution to problems that are brought to it.
“We are true fabricators,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Wilson, 27 SOMXS AMT supervisor. “We work with metals, composites or anything you can get your hands on. We can take something big and make it small or take something small and make it big. We’ll fabricate a piece to meet a need.”
The trade these Airmen are learning while working in the metals tech shop will pay dividends whether they stay in the Air Force or decide to separate. If they stay in, there’s job security. They’re not delegated to work on certain airframes. They can fabricate parts for any aircraft, vehicles or pieces of equipment used all over the base. Every day is something different. It’s probably unlikely the Air Force would ever eliminate the career field.
For those who decide to separate, they have skills and years of experience in a career field that’s in high demand. Skilled labor jobs like plumbers, electricians and mechanics are becoming more and more difficult to staff, especially more so in this digital world.
“Having skills (like these) is a thing not many people in our generation have right now,” Wilson said. “Everyone is told you have to go to college, get a degree and get a job somewhere. We have a skill that takes time. We’re much more valuable with 10-years’ experience than someone straight out of college. All the baby boomers are retiring and it’s really satisfying when a 20 or 30 year old can outperform all these people just because you have a skill.”
Wilson says that he considers himself extremely lucky that he got his job. He was guaranteed one of his top three choices, metals tech being number one. He calls it the “Holy Grail” of maintenance. He mentions that for some, it’s very difficult to adjust to new responsibilities as they make rank, especially any rank after technical sergeant.
“It’s a very hard shift for some leaders to take,” Wilson said. “Some people just can’t get away from the machines and the job. They have a really hard time moving over to management and personnel.”
Working with their hands, solving problems, creating a much-needed piece for an aircraft when no one in the shop has done it before: these are the situations that the Airmen of the metals tech shop face on a daily basis. No matter what piece they need to fabricate or fix, the Airmen will get it done. They are modern day blacksmiths. They’re the last line of defense for an aircraft before it’s depot-bound and they are a crucial to the readiness of the Air Force.