Forging a Plane: Heavy Duty Arts and Crafts
EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska - Blue, orange, green and pink flames encase a KC-135 Stratotanker at the Alaska Air National Guard’s 168th Refueling Wing. However, there’s more to this KC-135 that sets it apart than just the color scheme – it’s a model version made entirely of aluminum cans.
Monster energy drink cans form the skin of the aircraft that Tech. Sgt. Tom Andrukiewicz, 168th Maintenance Squadron, aircraft structural mechanic, built from discarded aluminum cans and recycled scrap metal. The project allows Andrukiewicz, and other Airmen in the 168th Fabrication shop, to practice and hone skills they apply to building parts and mending the 168th Wing’s much larger aircraft.
This is the second “soda can” plane Andrukiewicz has built. A model old-fashioned biplane, similar to something the Wright brothers flew, made with soda cans hung in the shop he worked in while deployed to Qatar from December 2011 to March 2012.
“I made one in two weeks over there all out of Pepsi cans,” Andrukiewicz said.
Although he stopped drinking soda seven years ago, Pepsi was his favorite. He left the plane in Qatar.
“I left it hanging [in the shop] to make the KC-135 guys proud,” Andrukiewicz said.
This time around, he decided to build a KC-135. Airmen in the Aerospace Ground Equipment, Electrical and Repair and Reclamation shops pass along empty Monster drink cans, which each cost about $2.50.
“A lot of the times I was held up waiting for certain people to drink certain flavors,” Andrukiewicz said.
He washes, cleans and cuts each can, many of which have to be thrown out.
“Working with soda cans is really hard,” Andrukiewicz said. “You can only bend the cans so many times before they rip or crack because they’re so thin. It gets frustrating.”
Using the blueprint of a KC-135, Andrukiewicz kept the plane’s dimensions proportional. The entire plane is built from the soda cans aside from the plane’s frame, which is covered by the cans. The edge of the engine is the can’s bottom ridge.
“I cut the can down in ways to be able to use the same sized can to match the plane,” Andrukiewicz said.
Senior Airman Mike Meyers, 168th aircraft structural mechanic, describes Fabrication Airmen as the body workers of a plane, responsible for fixing cracks, rivets, metal parts and glass. They also paint and make stickers and stencils.
“Most other jobs have a recipe: step A, remove this, step B, remove this,” Meyers said. “Ours has none of that. We have guidelines. You can have five different people do five different repairs and they’re all correct, which allows us to be really creative.”
Being creative is what Andrukiewicz enjoys most. Unlike most models, every piece of the plane moves – the engines, the boom used to refuel aircraft in flight and flight controls, which turn the plane left, right, up or down.
“Getting the flight controls to move was a challenge,” Andrukiewicz said. “I spent a lot of time on the engine getting it to spin.”
Color-coordinating the plane’s skins by matching cans can be difficult for Andrukiewicz, who is colorblind, so he has to read the flavor name on each can.
“I can see that there’s a different color, but a lot of the time I can’t tell you what that color is,” Andrukiewicz said.
He applies similar techniques he uses every day on aircraft to his models, such as hiding seams and glue marks on underside of the cans.
Aircraft structural mechanics attend an 18-week course that teaches basic skills in painting, corrosion control, sheet metal and how to draw things up, said Staff Sgt. Greg Wood, 168th aircraft structural mechanic.
Aircraft structural mechanics need to practice skills frequently. Tech. Sgt. Joseph Mowery, 168th Maintenance Squadron aircraft structural supervisor, describes it as an art.
“You’re not just taking a part off and replacing that part,” Mowery said. “You might be taking a part off and remaking that part. You might just get a drawing or have to draw one up yourself.”
Through working on training projects in their spare time, Airmen invest in producing quality work that allows creativity and risk taking, Mowery said. They problem solve as a team and hone skills they then apply to fixing aircraft.
“It helps for us to work on other projects that are not on the plane, so we can be more efficient at our job,” Mowery said. “It saves us messing up on the actual aircraft.”
For Andrukiewicz, every little break is an opportunity to cut cans and lay pieces out.
“I just like to stay busy if times are slow, so it’s taken me a year and a half to do what I’ve got,” Andrukiewicz said. “A little bit here, a little bit there, just plugging away at it.”
While visiting the 168th ARW in April 2013, Lt. Gen. Alain Parent, Northern American Aerospace Defense Command deputy commander, was impressed by Andrukiewicz’s plane and gave him a coin.
The plane is 90 percent complete, Andrukiewicz estimated. The leading edges, or rounded part in front of the wings, are the only piece left to be finished.
Andrukiewicz has also built a minuteman placard between the second and third floor of the headquarters building. Fabrication Airmen are currently designing a placard for the 168th Communications Flight that will be submitted for approval. The design mimics the flight’s badge, with 3-dimensional layers of a wreath, globe and a hand with a lightning bolt.