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NDI: it’s the little things that count

Senior Airman Christopher applies penetrant to a speed brake on an F-15E to look for cracks or damage at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia September 15, 2015. The penetrant produces a fluorescent color when cast under a black light allowing minute cracks to become visible. Christopher is a nondestructive inspection journeyman assigned to the 380th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Christopher Boitz)

Senior Airman Christopher applies penetrant to a speed brake on an F-15E to look for cracks or damage at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia September 15, 2015. The penetrant produces a fluorescent color when cast under a black light allowing minute cracks to become visible. Christopher is a nondestructive inspection journeyman assigned to the 380th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Christopher Boitz)

The remains of penetrant left on a speed brake of an F-15E produces a fluorescent color under a black light. The black light allows minute cracks to become visible. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Christopher Boitz)

The remains of penetrant left on a speed brake of an F-15E produces a fluorescent color under a black light. The black light allows minute cracks to become visible. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Christopher Boitz)

Senior Airman Christopher reviews an X-ray of an F-15E for cracks at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia September 15, 2015. Nondestructive inspection uses X-rays to look inside aircrafts to identify damage. Christopher is a nondestructive inspection journeyman assigned to the 380th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Christopher Boitz)

Senior Airman Christopher reviews an X-ray of an F-15E for cracks at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia September 15, 2015. Nondestructive inspection uses X-rays to look inside aircrafts to identify damage. Christopher is a nondestructive inspection journeyman assigned to the 380th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Christopher Boitz)

To scan for defects, Staff Sgt. Logan uses a bolt hole eddy current probe to scan the inside of a fuse plug hole on a wheel at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia September 15, 2015. Logan is the assistant noncommissioned officer in charge of nondestructive inspection assigned to the 380th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Christopher Boitz)

To scan for defects, Staff Sgt. Logan uses a bolt hole eddy current probe to scan the inside of a fuse plug hole on a wheel at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia September 15, 2015. Logan is the assistant noncommissioned officer in charge of nondestructive inspection assigned to the 380th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Christopher Boitz)

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- As the old cliché goes, it’s the little things that count. Those small, intricate and often overlooked details can have the biggest impact on the mission.

For Airmen in the 380th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron, nondestructive inspection section, it’s in those minor details where they make that phrase anything but a cliché.

“The smallest defect could potentially compromise the integrity of bigger substructures,” said Senior Airman Christopher, NDI journeyman. “For instance, a crack on a bracket could add stress to other areas of an aircraft and potentially cause more damage.”

Attention to detail is skill that every Airman learns upon entering basic training. It’s a skill that teaches them to look closely at every detail and execute tasks with precision and perform them correctly.

The NDI section embodies the attention-driven attribute; ensuring aircraft are ready to execute air tasking orders from U.S. Air Force Central Command.

“We have to look at the overall structure and find that item that’s out of place or something that’s slightly askew,” said Staff Sgt. Logan, assistant noncommissioned officer in charge of NDI. “It might not seem like a big object, but it only takes one bolt or nut to get sucked in to the intake to completely destroy an engine.”

90 percent of their support is dedicated to the F-15E Strike Eagle; an airframe that has been vital to air-to-ground operations during Operation INHERENT RESOLVE.

Every 400 hours, the Strike Eagle undergoes phase maintenance where aircraft mechanics perform a series of checks and repairs.
For NDI, their focus is acute, looking for surface defects like as cracks and corrosion.

“We look everywhere on the aircraft, from the nose to the exhaust during phase. The wings, vertical and horizontal stabilizers to name a few [areas],” said Staff Sgt. Logan. “We can find those minute cracks that would progress with continued force and stress under flight. There’s a lot of attention to detail when you’re looking at an entire wing skin, trying to look for cracks that aren’t bigger than a quarter of an inch.”

However, the outside of the aircraft only tells half of the story. To completely analyze the airframe, NDI uses x-rays machines to view intricate details beneath the plated armor of the jet to identify possible problems.

“One of the capabilities we use is x-rays to see inside the aircraft,” said Staff Sgt. Logan. “X-rays allow us to see water entrapment inside honeycomb structures in the flight controls which could completely destroy the controls. We also look for delamination in the composite structures where the layers start to separate.”

“It’s the quickest and most effective way to look for any damage or foreign object debris without tearing the aircraft apart and looking for it. It’s beneficial to see in areas where you can’t normally get in to,” Staff Sgt. Logan added.

NDI also performs oil tests called joint oil analysis program, or JOAP, where oils are tested for foreign elements. Too much of any one element found during testing such as aluminum, copper, titanium, iron or zinc could indicate there may be a problem internally in the aircraft.

“Each aircraft has limits of what elements are allowable in the oil,” said Senior Airman Christopher. “If certain elements are reading really high it allows us to identify specific parts or components that are failing on the aircraft and we can notify the crew chiefs that it needs to be replaced before it fails during flight.”

Preventing an aircraft from breaking in mid-flight, or worse, a complete catastrophic failure, is no small feat. It takes a critical eye to spot those faults in the aircraft.

Finding those deficiencies before it’s too late leaves a sense of pride in the office; guaranteeing aircraft are ready to deliver weapon strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

“It’s one of those jobs where not too many people know what we do,” said Senior Airman Christopher. “I really enjoy what I do. It makes me feel like I’m impacting the mission and doing my part.”

(Editor’s note: Due to safety and security reasons, last names were removed.)