Heart and Soul: Sheet metal mechanics undergo hours of training before hitting shop floor

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE -- They don't wear BDU's, but they lace up their boots everyday. Their hearts beat to the drum of Ol'Glory and their pride flies high as the Bombers they repair.
   They are sheet metal mechanics, who take pride in every rivet and every square inch of sheet metal that holds the half-a-century old aircrafts together.
   "Without a structure, you can't hang bombs or transport people. Sheet metal mechanics are the heart and soul of the aircraft," said Jefferson Tarver, Tinker Vocational Center director and former military maintenance technician.
   Incoming aircraft mechanics train up to three years before they even see the shop floor at Tinker. Nearly all newly hired mechanics complete a 1,980 hour aviation maintenance program at a vocational center, said Ashley Cooney, 565th Maintenance Squadron sheet metal mechanic supervisor.
   Upon completion of the course, participants are required to pass three exams spanning about eight hours with nearly 300 questions combined including Airframe and Power Plant written exams and a Federal Aviation Administration oral and practical exam, said Herman Bounds, Aviation Maintenance Technology assistant program director at Metro Tech.
   "It's challenging and requires a lot of dedication. It has to be something you really want to do. It's six hours a day, five days a week for 18 months for the adult program," Mr. Bounds said.
   He said there is a year long waiting list of about 100 people wanting to enter the program.
   In addition to receiving the FAA certified Air Frame and Power Plant license, the mechanics have to complete and additional 80-160 hours of training at the unique TVC on base in their area of specialty such as sheet metal, electrical or engine courses.
   Founded in 1980, Tinker is the only air force base with a co-op agreement with a vocational center that is dedicated specifically to the installation's maintenance staff.
   "Formerly, many employees hired didn't have any special training. They were getting over-the-shoulder training, shortcuts and even wrong training," said Ralph Wilsack, TVC program manager.
   He added that Tinker pioneered the possibility of vocational training more than 20 years ago in order to provide the best trained mechanics to support the warfighters.
   In addition to ensuring a finely-tuned work force, Tinker Votec is also recognized by the State of Oklahoma for developmental training of the Oklahoma work force. The state subsidizes the expenses for the votec to provide affordable training at $4 per actual hour per student to support the workforce of the largest employer in the state, Tinker AFB.
   For 48-year-old recent vo-tech graduate Thomas White, 18 months and more than 2,000 hours was a small price to pay for success.
   "I've wanted to work for Tinker since I was 18 or 19 years old, but I didn't know anybody and I had no work experience" he said.
   White, a Native American of the Absentee Shawnee tribe, was sent to a military boarding school at his mother's request when he was a teen. He said he learned good core values from the military, and that prompted him to want to work for the Department of Defense at Tinker.
   However, he worked 15 years as a roofer until the strenuous nature of the job took a toll on his body. He then became an auto/small engine mechanic.
   "I was living paycheck to paycheck," Mr. White said.
   He was able to enroll in the Aviation Maintenance Course at the Gordon Cooper Technology Center in Shawnee with the assistance of the Citizen of Pottawatomie tribe. The tribe offered a tuition assistance program for Native Americans and Mr. White was able to pass the competency test and enroll in the program.
   "I felt like this was my only avenue to be considered for employment at Tinker," he said. "I just wanted the opportunity to give back and pay my duty to my country."
   Mr. White has been a Tinker B-52 sheet metal mechanic with the 565th Maintenance Squadron since April.
   "I realized it is not too late in my life to get in and change," Mr. White said.
   And change is good.
   "You go from working for peanuts all day and all of a sudden your basket is full," said Mr. White.
   His job at Tinker has provided stability for his family and gives him the opportunity to do what he has always wanted to, support his country and make a living, he said.
   "We do the best we can so the aircraft will be safe for our troops," he said. "We are a part of the military and we carry that responsibility with us everyday."
   That is the meaning of the Air Force Materiel Command Full Force.