Air Force Researchers Provide Rapid Answers to Big Challenges for Warfighters

Highlight: Air Force Researchers Provide Rapid Answers to Big Challenges for Warfighters

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AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate researchers Jim Hierholzer (left) and Corey Boltz review images from the Electrical and Electronic Materials Evaluation laboratory scanning electron microscope. U.S. Air Force photo by Michael Craft

AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate researchers Jim Hierholzer (left) and Corey Boltz review images from the Electrical and Electronic Materials Evaluation laboratory scanning electron microscope. (Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force photo by Michael Craft)

The safety and protection of the warfighter is a motivating force in everything Air Force Research Laboratory does, but for one branch in particular, it is at the very heart of their mission.

The Materials and Manufacturing Directorate’s Materials Integrity Branch, often informally called the “CSI of Air Force materials and processes,” devotes its skills and talents to solving some of the toughest challenges faced by today’s fleet.

The branch’s rich legacy dates back to their earliest predecessors of the Air Force, when they supported adhesive bonding and corrosion issues during World War I.

“The Air Force’s need for our kind of analysis started in 1917, when we first starting flying in wartime, and it’s only increased since then,” said Dr. Jeffrey Calcaterra, Structural Materials Evaluation Team Lead.

The branch, which comprises the Structural Materials Evaluation; Electrical and Electronic Materials Evaluation; and Adhesives and Composites teams, approaches its challenging task in a variety of ways, depending on customer needs. Those needs could range from component failure analysis, to material evaluation and characterization, to painstaking on-site investigations.

“If it involves an Air Force safety-related issue and you hear about it on the news, there’s a good chance we’re already engaged,” said Brett Jordan, Electrical and Electronic Materials Evaluation team lead.

AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate engineer Alan Oquendo demonstrates the failed flywheel assembly and engine cooling fan that resulted in a non-injury incident involving the Wright “B” Flyer replica aircraft. U.S. Air Force photo by Holly Jordan

AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate engineer Alan Oquendo demonstrates the failed flywheel assembly and engine cooling fan that resulted in a non-injury incident involving the Wright “B” Flyer replica aircraft. (Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force photo by Holly Jordan)

The branch’s work is funded through the AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate specifically for the purpose of serving the needs of the Air Force as a whole. This allows the Materials Integrity Branch to provide unbiased analysis, observations, and recommendations.

The Structural Materials Evaluation team recently conducted an investigation for the Wright “B” Flyer, Inc., in which the team identified the root cause of a fan disk failure that temporarily grounded the historic aircraft replica. The team’s findings and recommendations helped the organization improve the component design, thereby preventing future occurrences.

Although each investigation is different, the approach typically remains the same. First, the team assesses the nature of the request and the type of engagement required to acquire and evaluate the necessary materials and processes. Then, the researchers go about analyzing the problem, which could involve microscopy, Computed Tomography (CT scans), or other means of nondestructive evaluation. These scientists and engineers are always careful to exhaust all nondestructive analytic solutions before resorting to destructive means, such as cutting or breaking down the part.

“Once you cut into a part, you can’t put it back together.” Calcaterra said. “We want to preserve the evidence as best we can, so we only do destructive analysis if there are no other options.”

The Materials Evaluation laboratory facilities are filled with specialized devices including digital and scanning electron microscopes, an autoclave, and a wide variety of structural, electrical, and composites testing equipment. But according to Materials Integrity Branch Chief Segrid Harris, the cooperative spirit is what truly makes the branch tick. She says their camaraderie makes it easy to draw from fellow colleagues’ experience when projects require expertise from across the teams.

“Our team members are well-known within the Materials and Processes communities,” Harris adds. “The fact that we have structural, electrical, adhesives, and composites experts all together under one roof allows us to draw from this great well of expertise. We have great relationships with organizations across the DoD, which allows us to reach outside for advice and assistance when we need it.”

Once the team has fully analyzed the problem, they create a report on their findings. This report will usually outline the cause of the problem along with the associated analysis. At times, the investigators will fail to detect a clear root cause, but this, too, is valuable information that will be included in the report, as it may lead the customer to look toward other factors. Most importantly, the report provides recommendations the customer can use to return the asset to service.

The Electrical and Electronic Materials Evaluation team recently evaluated the effects of anti-corrosion coating on aircraft wiring. The team was engaged by the customer to determine if the anti-corrosion coatings that are commonly applied to aircraft to prevent metal corrosion would have an adverse effect on aircraft wiring and connectors. The team determined that the anti-corrosion material did have a detrimental effect if it makes contact with the wiring. As a result of this study, the team recommended to the customer that they ensure necessary steps are always put in place to properly shield wiring from anti-corrosion materials that are sprayed onto aircraft during maintenance actions.

The branch also engages in projects that make aircraft maintainers’ jobs easier. The Adhesives and Composites team recently created tools that allow maintainers to remove elastomeric coatings, sealants, gap fillers, adhesive residue, and other materials quickly and without damaging aircraft surfaces. Made from Torlon (polyamide-imide polymer), the tools and related accessories are now commercially available and in use by many Air Force and other organizations for a wide variety of applications.

“The work we do immediately impacts the warfighter,” Jordan said. “Knowing that we’re providing real-time support to people protecting this country makes the job very rewarding. It’s really the greatest job in the world!”

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