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Healing large beastly vehicles

  • Published
  • By Joseph Coslett Jr
  • 90th Missile Wing

On a harsh winter day, a chance meeting between a 58,000 pounds snow plow truck used to clear hazards on the road accidentally took on a 12,000 pounds armored humvee, rear-ending the humvee on the highway and causing a major scar on the vehicle from the rear fender to the doors.

The damage to this 6-ton heavy vehicle would require the right team to care for the wounds inflicted on the humvee. Call in the 90th Logistics Readiness Squadron’s Monster Garage, or the body shop. 

To get the humvee back into fighting shape, enter two Air Force civilians with 40 years combined experience, along with the shop’s Airmen to tackle this feat. Walking into the shop, a person is surrounded by metal, tools and machines to bend, weld and shape the metal to their will to fix the 90th Missile Wing’s fleet of vehicles supporting the global nuclear deterrence mission.

It is not easy to repair a heavy up-armored humvee.

“We had to rip it apart and disassemble all of the rear panels,” said Thomas Hoadley, 90 LRS mobile metal mechanic. “It was not just a simple repair like on other trucks, as you have several hundred-pound doors with armor which requires lifts to get them off and on to fix them.”

Hoadley started working on F.E. Warren Air Force Base 32 years ago, straight out of college as a maintainer performing corrosion control at missile sites. Four years later, he got the opportunity to join the Monster Garage and put his college degree in welding and metal repair to work for the next 28 years.   

A damaged humvee is not something a person can just bring to the local garage, according to Hoadley. It is a specialized heavy vehicle requiring a unique facility.

The humvees are old, and replacement parts cannot be found at the local hardware or auto store. In one case, a humvee rolled over, denting the turret on top. The large bearing that lets the turret rotate was broken. The team had to fabricate the tools to help fix the turret to get the humvee back on the road and ready to secure the future.

“I love building things,” said Orlando Cepeda, 90 LRS mobile metal mechanic. “For this rollover, in order to rebuild the vehicle besides the parts they gave us, we had to figure out how to fix it.”

Cepeda first removed the 36-inch bearing from the humvee, then put his 22 years of body shop experience into action by fabricating the tools needed to bend the damaged bearing. After grinding, molding and welding clamps together, he placed them surgically to pop them back in place.  

Keep on moving while saving time and money

Walking into a metal box inside a building large enough to hold more than two full-size trucks, Hoadley walks around on paper crackling with each step that covers the floors to prevent paint from splattering.

During this trip to the paint booth, he will apply primer and then paint to match the truck's original color. Preparing to put on the sealant, this Wrangler slowly and carefully pours primer into his paint gun. He unravels two air hoses, one for the paint gun and the other for an alien-looking hoodie adorned with a mask and ventilator to help protect him from inhaling vapors. 

As he painted, the room, once clear and visible, was filled with atomized particles that created a view like a blurry picture. This was quickly dissipated by the wind blowing through the paint bay via a filtration system which keeps it cleaner, with less dust and fumes. Within minutes, the painting expert applied the sealant to help the paint stick to the panel. 

This is just one of the ways the auto shop returns vehicles back to service looking like new.

Hoadley fondly remembers his most challenging repair: a 2019 Ford F350. The truck experienced a searing fire starting in the utility box and then spreading into the cab, burning everything down to mostly metal.

“We stripped the truck down to the bare frame with just an engine sitting in it,” said Hoadley. “We replaced the wiring, interior and exterior panels, then rebuilt it back like new.”

By having the repairs done internally, we were able to cut down on costs and time of the repairs, ultimately saving the Air Force money, he said.

Another way the team saved money is by redesigning the humvee spare tire rack to reduce repair times. A common problem comes from users bending the part by over-tweaking the jack.

“We came up with this solution where instead of replacing the whole part, we place the rod and bolt it in,” said Cepeda. “This design is a lot better because instead of having to take off the weld and rewelding it. It's already preset and all you have to do is change the rod.” 

Another innovation they created involves humvee door hinges. Buying a larger hinge and then cutting it to the size needed saves money per repair. 

“From the time we start on repairs until it's done, it's probably three or four days,” said Hoadley. “If we send things downtown, the vehicle would sit for weeks until they get to it. By doing the repairs ourselves, we are saving time.”

Passing on knowledge to the next generation

“Every 30 days, we have a new Airman training on machining and fabricating,” said Hoadley. “Learning this will help them when they deploy and they won’t have to have minor body repairs outsourced.”

According to Cepeda, it is like having a whole trade school in one section that Airmen get to benefit from. 

Two weeks ago, mechanically inclined Airman 1st Class Marcos Orellana, 90 LRS vehicle maintenance technician, joined the two master technicians for a month. He started his journey, like many Airmen before, to learn the basics of the body shop.

“In two weeks, I have already practiced how to weld, plasma cutting, as well as adjusting and fixing different parts on vehicles,” said Orellana.

Benefiting from his trainers’ 40 years of experience, he is getting much more than just learning new skills.

“I love learning these skills because they are useful in the outside world,” said Orellana. “They are teaching me to accomplish it the proper way. They taught me it is okay to take my time to make sure it is done right because if it is not done right, then it doesn’t matter how you do it.”

Another benefit coming from the passion and knowledge of those training him is the desire to learn new tricks of the trade.

“My motivation is to learn new stuff every day,” he said. “Here, I get to do that. It feels good to accomplish something for the Air Force and know even small things make a difference for the big picture.”