A hangar at Jacksonville Naval Air Station is full of F-18s in various states of disassembly. Fighter jets are surrounded by parts, from full wings to crates with smaller pieces.

 

It’s the Fleet Readiness Center’s job to keep those aircraft and others flying. That involves not only routine maintenance and repairs, but actually making many of the parts.


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Since October, the manufacturing shops there have produced about 13,000 parts. That may be something as simple as a small cover that looks like it could have come in a plastic bag from Home Depot to a complex part for an engine that took many hours to mill.

In one room, big blocks of aluminum, titanium and other metals are cut, spun, ground and drilled into virtually anything they need. In another, the big, distinctive yellow letters that say “Blue Angels” are printed out before they’re plastered on the side of those famous blue jets.

“Every day I come in I feel honored, and a little famous,” said Randy Nelson in the graphics shop.

By the way, the blue paint for all the Angels is sprayed on at the base, too. Hundreds of types of wires are cut, connected and laid out for installation in aircraft.

But it’s the actual manufacturing that many people don’t realize goes on out there.

A total of 270 people work there, making all those parts. And they’re looking for more people, including 173 just in sheet metal.

“Oh, we make some stuff here,” said Major Nimock, who leads the manufacturing operation. That’s his name, by the way, not a rank.

Over at the water jet machine, Alek Mihic cuts metal with powder abrasive mixed with water. The 60,000 pounds per square inch allows him to cut through sheet metal like it was paper. When the metal gets thicker, say 3, 4, 5 inches or more, it goes a little slower.

But it cuts.

Most of what he produces is finished work, he said, but some of it is a rough cut that allows other machines to take over and fine-tune the parts to one-thousandth of an inch.

“You know how they say ‘Close enough for government work?’” Nimock said. “That’s not true.”

There are also a dozen room-sized machines called CNCs, which stands for Computer Numerical Control. But they’re so much cooler than their dull names. A block of metal is placed in them, the plans called up on the computer and the machine goes to work grinding, spinning and drilling.

A part will often have to go through different CNCs to get all its work done. There are lathes where the part turns and a stationary blade grinds it. Sometimes the part is stationary and the cutter moves around it. There are drills and other tools that remove bits of metal, eventually leaving the final, finished part that was once hidden in that metal, like a sculpture emerging from inside a block of marble.

It’s subtractive manufacturing, spitting out bins of shiny metal shavings that are sent off for recycling.

The shop just got a new, even bigger machine from Austria that does just about everything in one. The price tag: $3.5 million.

“You can put a solid chunk of metal the size of this table in, and you come out part of a landing gear,” Nimock said.

The machines are all computer-based, of course. Plans with precise specs are set up, the metal locked into place and the machines go to work.

One person can operate several machines, Nimock said, because there’s really nothing to do once the machine gets going.

“But this over here,” he said, “is old school.”

There are the workers, one to a machine that requires their hands and full attention. They make tools and fixtures, one at a time.

There are scanners to make sure each part is exact.

“Everything we make goes through them,” he said.

But the scanners also get the exact dimensions for a part that needs to be duplicated, in case the specs are not already in the system.

Parts are anodized, painted … eventually taped up in bubble wrap, just like so many more pedestrian items.

But these are going on aircraft.

 

Roger Bull: (904) 359-4296