The safety and protection of the warfighter is a motivating force in everything the Air Force Research Laboratory does, but for one branch in particular, it is at the very heart of its mission.
The Materials and Manufacturing Directorate’s Materials Integrity Branch stands always at the ready to answer the needs of the warfighter, from major mishaps to simple assessments. Often informally called the “CSI of Air Force materials and processes,” this group of Air Force professionals devotes their skills and talents to solving some of the toughest challenges faced by today’s fleet.
The branch’s rich legacy dates back to its earliest predecessors of the Air Force, when the branch’s members 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.
Today, the branch’s work is an example of the AFRL “four Rs” philosophy of being relevant, responsive, revolutionary and ready for the needs of the warfighter. These researchers pride themselves on rapid response to customer needs in support of uninterrupted warfighter operations.
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.
In all cases, these researchers meticulously study the problem at hand to provide expert recommendations to the customer. Those recommendations drive customer actions to make improvements, redesigns or repairs to keep or return military assets to service.
“We have an entire laboratory full of very talented scientists and engineers – young people, people with active-duty experience and people with many years’ experience in this type of work,” said Jordan. “Our people have lots of knowledge in how things work, and more importantly, with how things break. We have a laboratory full of this kind of experience, and people within the Air Force community have access to this talent and skill. We exist purely to help, without any attachment. I can’t think of any other organization that has that mission.”
The branch’s work is funded through the AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate specifically to serve the needs of the Air Force as a whole. This allows the Materials Integrity Branch to provide unbiased analysis, observations and recommendations.
As long as the teams have the capacity to do the work, they will accept requests from private entities as well. This was evidenced recently in an investigation the Structural Materials Evaluation team conducted 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.
The branch’s diverse customer base includes organizations such as the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, Air Logistics Complexes, Air Force Safety Center and many other organizations within the Department of Defense. For their customers, help is only a phone call away.
“We purposefully make it as easy as possible to request our assistance,” said Calcaterra. “Time is often a critical factor, and our customers need to be able to engage us without a lot of red tape and hassle. As soon as someone engages us, we set the wheels in motion and begin working toward a solution.”
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 said. “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.
“Our work is very interesting because it is constantly changing,” said James Mazza, Adhesives and Composite Materials team lead. “Every case is unique and requires a different thought process. We are always revising and creating new approaches to solve problems.”
The branch tackles a wide range of projects. 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 range and diversity of these tasks make the Materials Integrity Branch unique within the Air Force. And according to Jordan, it also makes the job enjoyable for the researchers who are part of it.
“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.”