388 FW has X-ray vision

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Well, X-ray vision not quite in the way most would imagine, but a form of X-ray vision nonetheless.

Usually the stuff of sci-fi movies, fictional superheroes or comic books ads, the digital upgrade to a base Non-destructive Inspection (NDI) laboratory’s X-ray system has greatly improved the workflow for Airmen assigned there.

The 388th Equipment Maintenance Squadron’s NDI shop, one of a few on base, is made up of 19 active-duty Airmen, one active reserve technician, and three traditional reservists who prevent potential failures by locating small cracks and identifying minute discontinuities in F-16 and F-35 aircraft engines, wings and other components. The implications of a failure during flight are obvious in terms of pilot safety, weapon platform replacement cost and fleet operations.

Although the 388th EMS’s NDI lab has, for a long time, successfully performed its radiography mission using conventional X-ray equipment, the addition of digital capabilities to the existing system has revolutionized the way the crew performs work on F-16s. A similar “computed radiography” system has been used for some time in the medical industry, but the technology has only recently been adapted for aircraft maintenance.

According to Staff Sgt. Joshua Batman, 388th EMS NDI assistant section lead, the added digital capabilities offer excellent image sharpness, improving the probability of detecting flaws.

“The new digital X-ray system is really cool and fun to work with, providing a faster way to develop and read an image,” said Batman. “It gives us the option to enhance an image, giving us a greater possibility of discovering discontinuities within the aircraft part, which would otherwise be masked. The entire inspection process has changed because the new X-ray process is more forgiving. With the new digital system, we can change the pixels and contrast so that the image is perfect for reading.”

The updated digital process also saves time and money, while creating a healthier work environment and eliminating hazardous wastes.

The conventional process uses a tube to shoot protons though metal parts, creating an exposure onto a film plate. The silver-bearing film plate is then developed using chemicals, and the resulting image is required to be a specific density for it to be usable. Films found to be unusable have to be re-imaged and processed again. The current cost of the X-ray film is $845 per 50-piece box; it also has a limited shelf-life. Besides unforgiving exposure requirements, high costs and shelf-life concerns, the film developing chemicals are hazardous, expensive and require continual monitoring.

Alternatively, while the digitally upgraded system still shoots protons the same way, the new exposure process now employs reusable imaging plates, which completely eliminate the use of silver-bearing film and hazardous chemicals. These new plates produce a digital image that can be erased, allowing them to be quickly ready for additional exposures. Each 14-by-17-inch plate costs between $600 and $1,300, but can accommodate more than 1,000 scans with no expiration. The end result of the new system is more flexibility and significant cost savings. It also eliminates a hazardous waste stream, which benefits the environment and provides a healthier workplace.

The new digital system also saves time, improves safety and adds portability.

Efficiency is gained since digital scanning requires about 30 percent less radiation energy during exposure, reducing exposure times and potential overexposures — at the same time, making the task safer for system operators.

The portability benefit comes from the addition of a laptop computer, something the old system lacked. With the conventional system, all NDI work had to be performed in the NDI lab on a computer at a fixed location, requiring all work to be done in the shop vault. With the new equipment, NDI technicians still work in the shop vault, but they now also have a deployable system which can be dispatched to alternate locations. In a deployed, high-tempo environment, the portable system will accelerate the radiography process, getting aircraft back to the fight, quicker.

Looking forward, training on the new digital system will be provided for all NDI Airmen via a Career Field and Education Training Plan, and plans have been established for its future use in maintaining F-35s.

“The new system is capable of performing all radiographic inspections for the aircraft on Hill Air Force Base. This new computed radiography system will also be ready for any requirements that the F-35 airframe may throw at us,” said Batman. “Future F-35 X-ray requirements will have procedures already written and the fact that the 388th already has this equipment in place puts us ahead of the game and on the leading edge of technology and efficiency.”

While embracing new technology and updating their processes, the 388th EMS NDI lab is moving forward and is achieving Air Force goals and objectives.

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