Cold War technology savior for aging B-ONEs

  • Published
  • By Airman Donald Knechtel
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
Ellsworth AFB maintainers will soon be making repairs in a new facility to help extend the life of aging B-1 bombers.

The Soviet Union developed a process using 'cold gas-dynamic spray' during the Cold War to repair rotatory aircraft. The lead engineer for the project brought the technology to the U.S., and the Department of Defense has been advancing the process since the early 1980s.

The 28th Maintenance Group started using this technology about three years ago, in partnership with the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and other agencies, to effectively repair aircraft parts and performs preventative maintenance of the 27 B-1 bombers here.

"Cold spray is the process in which you accelerate small particles of the substrate [whatever the material is made out of] to achieve a mechanical bond upon impact and with that bond you're able to build up onto the substrate to restore the original part back to the original specifications," said Brian James, 28th MXG senior engineering and technical advisor.

While the Army and Navy already had successful applications, Air Force maintainers applied a unique approach to the 'cold spray' process that allows maintenance personnel to repair aircraft parts which were otherwise unrepairable.

The 28th Bomb Wing has pushed the expansion of this technology even further and is currently developing an advanced repair facility, which is slated to be fully-operational in May 2016, for full integration of the 'cold spray' process.

With the assistance of the Rapid Innovation Fund, the wing is applying emerging B-1 applications to the standard maintenance procedure, as part of a broad implementation of the 'cold spray' technology across all Air Force weapon systems.

Robert Hrabe, President of VRC Metal Systems Limited Liability Company, added this technology could save the Air Force money in the future. For example, every equipment bay panel repaired at Ellsworth AFB by the 28th MXG saves the Air Force an estimated $225,000.

"There would be cost savings on the order of 20-to-1 return on investment as well as improved mission capable rates, aircraft availability, and reduced maintenance man-hours," Hrabe said. "Cold spray would improve our ability to maintain legacy aircraft."

The first B-1 bomber was delivered to the base on Jan. 21, 1987. So, with the aircraft turning 29 years old, it is increasingly difficult to find parts because companies have discontinued making obsolete components over the years. The 'cold spray' technology improves the maintenance group's ability to preserve the aircraft by repairing these hard-to-find pieces.

"We need this capability and other additive manufacturing capabilities at the field level so the 28th MXG commander and high technicians have the ability to repair or restore assets we currently have," James explained.

With the ability to restore irreplaceable parts, aircraft will be more readily available to launch and conduct combat airpower missions.

"This will dramatically decrease the amount of downtime that aircraft have to experience between our maintenance actions," James stated. "It will increase aircraft availability through the repair of previously unrepairable, unobtainable aircraft components."

The success of this technology was not an easy feat to reach, taking decades of research as well as support from a few companies along the way.

"Support for Cold Spray from the operational maintenance community and, in particular the 28th BW commanders, has been really great and key to creating an atmosphere where this type of innovative thinking can succeed," Hrabe commented. "Support from the South Dakota Governor's Office of Economic Development, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and the South Dakota congressional delegation have been vital to the success of this technology."

James was thrilled about the ability this equipment will bring not only to Ellsworth, but the Air Force as a whole.

"It's a grass root effort that we are doing here but it will be replicated throughout the U.S. Air Force," James said.