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Nothing sew-sew about this shop

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- The sewing machine dances a dervish in the seamstresses' capable hands. It's mid-afternoon and the building is mostly vacated, but around the work station of Sarah Jarel, there's a whir of kinetics.

She moves with a purpose at her work station in the 552nd Commodities Maintenance Squadron, or as it's more commonly known, the parachute shop in Bldg. 229. Her sewing machine, a ConSew L1, is like an extension of herself as she commands its every whim. This day she's sewing the interior lining of a KC-135, a standard procedure for a skilled sewer.

Ms. Jarel has called the parachute shop her professional home for seven years. She's one of about 50 expert workers who fulfill a highly important and yet behind-the-scenes mission for Tinker. It doesn't take too long to realize the scale of what they're doing in the "parachute shop." It clearly has far broader reaches than just parachutes.

"It's a privilege and an honor," said Mike Gunckel, the temporary promoted superintendent of textiles. Mr. Gunckel has worked in the parachute shop for a long time. Twenty-eight years have gone by since he first came on board as a parachute rigger, but he still takes pride in the end product.

The shop inspects, repairs and repacks about 500 parachutes of six different varieties per year, working from 5:45 a.m. to 11 p.m.

The fabric workers also sew the interior fabric -- insulation blankets -- for the KC-135, B-52, E-3, E-6 and B-1B aircraft. Mr. Gunckel noted that the shop goes through hundreds of thousands of yards of fabric per year in making the blankets.

Recently, the fabric workers pioneered a method of using "super kits" in the insulation blanket process. Every piece of fabric needed for an airplane's interior is delivered to the installers at one time, streamlining the install process significantly.

"We never get behind on a due date. We either meet them or beat them," Mr. Gunckel said with pride. "There's not a lot of recognition for it, but we love it."

Whenever an American flag needs to be repaired, the sewers willingly step in. They often repair tattered or ripped flags that fly on base.

Mr. Gunckel's favorite accomplishments are fancy engine covers the fabric workers sew.

"When we're done, those things are seen all over the world," he said. "When they park the jets on the ramp that's our work on display."

But the shop's responsibilities don't end there. Employees inspect and repack life support gear for the aircraft. Things like life preservers and life rafts all get the careful attention needed to make sure they're ready in an emergency.

"We hope that our life support gear is never used. We hope that we're just wasting our time inspecting it and repacking it for use," said Ann Jones, life support unit chief.

Farther back in the expansive Bldg. 229, a worker hunkers over a sprawling rubber fuel bladder. The bags come to the parachute shop for patches and new metal fittings. Ranging in size from 500 gallons to more than 5,000 gallons, for use in the B-52, employees use vulcanizing methods to ensure the fuel cells are like new. The shop has revamped nearly 80 fuel bladders for various aircraft so far this quarter.

"The main challenge is making sure we get the gear out when it's needed," Ms. Jones said, indicating their turnaround time is sometimes only a couple of hours.

While the parachute shop's mission is a broad one, it wouldn't come together without a cohesive team.

"There's a lot of teamwork. What I like is that we're like a small-knit group of people," Ms. Jones said. "A lot of teamwork is needed to get the job done and because we're a tight-knit group of people we can do that."