JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska —
The pointy end of the Air Force spear is metal – the titanium, steel and aluminum of aircraft. Whether in sheets or bearings, struts or bushings, it can be damaged. That’s where Air Force welders and machinists step in.
Airman Dalton Sturtz, a native of Seguin, Texas, had done some welding before he joined in June of 2017, but didn’t really know what his chosen Air Force Specialty Code would entail until after Basic Military Training.
“I didn’t pick this job, I fell into it,” he said. “I had no idea what it was. I knew what job I was signing for … but I didn’t find out until I got to tech school, and I saw everything we did and I thought ‘Oh, sweet!’ So I landed a pretty sweet deal. I was surprised the Air Force has welders. I’d never even thought about that.”
Much of Sturtz’ work at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson involves fabricating aircraft parts, though the Aircraft Metals Technology shop sometimes works outside the box.
“What I do in this shop is important to the mission because it helps get planes in the air,” Sturtz said. “Parts that Airmen need repaired, or cant’ get a hold of quickly, we’ll fix or make. We make stuff for aircraft and aircraft ground equipment – but if the dining facility needs knives, we’ll make knives.
“The hardest thing I’ve had to make are these specialized bushings for aircraft that are so thin – they have to be made exactly right. If you’re just a little bit off, you’ll break that part, ruin the whole thing, and have to make another one.”
Advances in capability have made the job significantly different in just the last decade; Tech. Sgt. Michael Wood, the AMT section chief, said he sees a world of difference since he joined in 2005.
“Since I came in the Air Force, technology has definitely improved,” said Wood, a native of Florence, Oregon. “You especially see that in a career field like this one. We now have 3D printing and Computer Numerical Coding machines; those are advances where you’re not manually doing the work. What they were doing when I came in in ’05 compared to what they’re doing now is light years different.”
The metals shop won the Pacific Air Forces-level Spark Tank initiative in 2017.
“The Air Force developed the Spark Tank to come up with innovative ideas to not only advance technology, but also save money,” Wood said. “With our 3D printing initiative, we came up with a couple of cost-saving tool ideas – one was actually life-saving. We got the 3D printing capability about a year and a half ago, and one of our Airmen developed this pretty quickly.”
Developing the part cost some man hours, and each version costs about $200 in material, Wood said, but third-party companies had requested half a million dollars just to do the research.
Finding solution is the best part, Sturtz said.
“The best part of my job is I get to be creative. There’s not a set way of doing things; there’s freedom in how we go about it. There could be six different ways to do something, so you have room for creativity … I love my job.”
Fostering that creativity is Wood’s job, he said.
“For me, mentoring these Airmen is all about sharing experiences I have gone through,” he said. “I try to share what I’ve been through and what I’ve seen to help them have good experiences down the road and professionally develop as Airmen.
“Everything these folks touch comes out better than it originally came in. I appreciate what these Airmen do every day. They think outside the box, and they are always improving. They have a lot of latitude to be creative and help the Air Force at JBER fly, fight and win every day.”