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PMEL measures up, keeps instruments on the money

Story and photos by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt Staff Writer
photo by Nick Stubbs

Don Bianco, a technician at the PMEL, takes a measurement on “The Rock,” a mammoth slab of granite used as a precision surface and reference for many types of equipment checking.

In a time when it seems increasingly difficult to be sure of anything, stepping into the world of the Precision Measurements Equipment Lab is a breath of fresh air. How much fresh air? The PMEL technicians can actually measure how much, if you like. Charged with making sure every device on base that measures weight, distance, pressure, temperature or any other quantifiable amount is correct, the lab is in the business of sure things. Be it determining if a massive torque wrench used by aircraft maintainers can indeed produce 5,000 foot-pounds of torque or whether a pair of night-vision goggles are lighting up the night as they should, lab techs are on the job daily, not only supporting the 6th Air Mobility Wing but also all tenant units, as well as off-base agencies, including the Clearwater Coast Guard station and the training base at Avon Park. Once a week a truckload of equipment in need of calibration and certification arrives there from the Air Force Reserve base at Homestead. "We have a large base of customers," said Manny Nieves, site manager of the PMEL. Operating under contract, Bionetics Corporation runs the lab with a staff of 10. Some of those techs are retired Air Force, even working at the PMEL at MacDill when it was an in-house operation. They perform critical jobs and many at MacDill depend on their proficiency. Mr. Nieves said instruments that check the various sensors and meters on the KC-135 tankers are perhaps the most important devices which the PMEL calibrates. While the lab itself doesn't check the aircraft, it checks the instruments which are used by maintenance crews to check the planes. The PMEL also checks the instruments which check the instruments. Accountability from there goes up to the Air Force Primary Standards Lab in Ohio and then up again to the National Bureau of Standards, which is ground zero in the world of zeroing instruments. The rule is: the devices the PMEL uses to check measuring devices used by aircrews must be at least four times more accurate than the device being measured. "We have to be able to say with certainty that we are accurately checking, which means our instruments have to be better," said Mr. Nieves. But even in a world of precision, one soon learns there are no absolutes. It's just a matter of how many decimal places out you can go. Mark Finkbiner, lead technician at the lab, notes even the smallest change in temperature or humidity can impact a measurement, which is why the lab is kept closely monitored and climate controlled. A double door with containment areas and sticky doormats do the job of making sure nothing gets in that could become a "factor." In the center of one of the lab rooms sits a mammoth granite slab affectionately known as "The Rock." Ground perfectly flat to within two microns-it is used to obtain a reference for precise measurements of a variety of equipment. But place a warm human hand upon it for a couple of minutes and a close examination with a precision measuring device would find the grain of the granite had been altered enough by the temperature change on that spot to show a difference in surface level, said Mr. Finkbiner. That's why techs in his business are careful about procedures and practices as they go about their job. There is no room for human or outside influences to get in the way of measurements. Lives may depend on it. There is no room for such fluctuation on something like scales used by aircraft maintainers to weigh planes or the gauges used to check their tire pressure. Capable of measuring up to 20,000 pounds, the small, digital pad scales must be within close tolerances, said David McGranaham, as he forced a hydraulic press down on a rubber pad sitting atop the scale. The rubber is designed to simulate a plane's tire, he said. A digital readout of the press pressure is displayed and matched to the weight readout on the scale. It must be checked throughout its measurement range to get the seal of approval from the PMEL. Other critical devices the lab handles are night-vision goggles and the PMEL here is a destination for night-vision equipment from several bases. The PMEL crew members know that the goggles they check could one day end up being the deciding factor in the success of a military operation. "We know what is on the line," said Mr. Nieves. But not every device the PMEL calibrates is so critical, although those who are trying to maintain their weight might not agree that the accuracy of a scale at the Fitness Center is anything but important. Then again, some may not mind if scales are not perfect. That is as long as they err on the low side.

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