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Laser paint removal lessens production time, health hazards

Laser operator Alvin Howard removes paint from E-3 Sentry nose cowling openings using a hand-held laser. The new process replaces less friendly liquid removers used for the many small areas on aircraft components and looks promising for wider aircraft paint removal uses in the future. (Air Force photo/Margo Wright)

Laser operator Alvin Howard removes paint from E-3 Sentry nose cowling openings using a hand-held laser. The new process replaces less friendly liquid removers used for the many small areas on aircraft components and looks promising for wider aircraft paint removal uses in the future. (Air Force photo/Margo Wright)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. (AFPN) -- Six months ago, the process to remove paint from an aircraft part took four or five hours. Today, the use of lasers is accomplishing the job in 20 minutes.

The 566th Aircraft Maintenance Group's Disassembly and Cleaning Unit can "nitpick" an aircraft part of its paint in that reduced amount of time by using a laser, which heats a surface up to 120 or 130 degrees and pops off the paint.

In the past, maintenance members removed paint from small areas and openings of weapon systems' flight controls with methylene chloride, which ate the paint away. However, methylene chloride is an active ingredient in Phenol and a potentially cancerous chemical.

"We have been looking for alternate methods to nitpick," said David Painter, the deputy section chief. "We would like to do away with Phenol. There is minimal hazardous waste involved (with a laser) and from a biological standpoint, it doesn't involve any chemicals."

Phenol was the agent used to strip the entire aircraft, including the nitpicking. Yet, due to the health hazards, use was limited 50 gallons of the chemical per aircraft. So the use of Phenol was reduced to just nitpicking.

Currently workers use an environmentally-friendly aircraft stripper known as "plane naked" to de-paint or strip the remainder of the aircraft. Officials considered the use of "plane naked" for nitpicking, but it took too long. As a result, they decided to try a laser.

Laser efficiency for nitpicking has officials seeking ways to expand its use.

"We started with aircraft parts, but if it works out, we would like to move this technology to the (whole) aircraft," Mr. Painter said.

The 566th AMXG received the laser equipment, a 125- and 500-watt unit, from Air Force Materiel Command Headquarters about six months ago. The machines cost approximately $250,000 each.

"We've worked with a lot of engineers and we're inviting others to take a look at what we can do and hopefully we can impress them enough to where they'll allow us to work on their weapons systems," laser operator Joe Longoria said.

Mr. Longoria, who is one of only six laser operators within the 175-person Disassembly and Cleaning Unit, said operators have received approvals from KC-135 Stratotanker and E-3 Sentry engineers, as well as permission to work on their aircraft parts.

Paint stripping is conducted every four to six years and is necessary for officials to look for corrosion and keep the weight of the plane down, said Shelvie Tabb, the unit's section chief. 

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