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Saving the world, one lock at a time

  • Published
  • By By Staff Sgt. Nick Wilson
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
(Editor's note: This is part two of a three-part series about the 509th Civil Engineer Squadron Heavy Repair section.)

The world's first lock and key was made of wood and used by the Egyptians more than 4,000 years ago. As societies discovered new ways to make locks more sophisticated, criminals unveiled just-as- innovative techniques for picking them.

Luckily Team Whiteman has a lineup of specialists who keep locks, and the assets housed behind them, secure. If an issue with a lock or key arises, locksmiths from the 509th Civil Engineer Squadron structures flight can be called to save the day.

"The locks we create and fix provide security for many facilities that contain classified materials and information," said Jack Crain, 509th CES base locksmith. "Without us, there could be security breaches all over the base. With the impact of Whiteman's mission on the free world, one small infraction could possibly damage our national security."

Crain has been working with the 509th CES as a locksmith for more than 10 years, allowing him to provide a wealth of experience when it comes to maintaining security on the installation.

With unparalleled ability to get into any building anywhere on base at any time, Crain and his team of locksmiths somewhat resemble base superheroes, because they have great power and responsibility, said Senior Airman David Bandy, 509th CES structures journeyman.

Bandy and Crain are two of five experts in a flight of 33 Airmen and civilians with the requisite training and certifications to perform locksmith duties.

"We attended a month-long school in Kentucky called the Lockmaster School Institute before being entrusted with the duty of keeping facilities on base secure," Bandy said. "If the doors aren't opening, we get them open and make sure they're secure."

The first thing students like Bandy learn when attending the locksmith school is attention to detail, the most critical aspect of lock-smithing, according to Crain.

"You might overlook something if you aren't paying any attention to detail," Crain said. "The last thing you want is to work on a job and get that feeling where all of a sudden you're working against yourself thinking, 'Oh, where'd this go?'"

Paying attention to detail is especially important when accounting for tens of thousands of locks and keys all over the base, said Crain.

"A day in the life of a locksmith could range from something as small as spending a few minutes cutting a key for a customer, to something as big as having to spend hours drilling and cutting into a large vault that won't open," Bandy said.

In addition to the challenge of cutting into vault doors, locksmiths also handle random emergencies that trump their other duties.

"We get quite a few people on a monthly basis who are locked out of areas that contain secret information," Bandy said. "If their safes are malfunctioning, then they can't perform their missions."

Putting current projects on hold changes the rhythm of daily duties, as the locksmiths have to find a happy medium between quickly alleviating major issues and ensuring routine assignments are still handled in a timely manner, said Bandy.

Ensuring that jobs get done quickly and efficiently requires locksmiths to make their own repairs by collecting older key and lock fragments from older fixtures and reusing them, rather than ordering parts from a civilian company, Bandy said.

"It saves the Air Force a lot of money," Bandy said. "And it also gives us a lot more resources for parts we can use for future repairs."

Bandy said one of the most challenging aspects of making repairs is pinning locks.

"If you have a certain key that you want to fit a lock, you can actually pin the lock to fit to the key, instead of having to create a new locking fixture," Bandy said. "There is a mathematical formula we use to configure keys to match up with doors customers request master keys for."

The locksmiths use basic algebra to design assemblies of keys for facilities that have hundreds of rooms, he said.

"It's a useful system that allows master keys and control keys to blend in sync with one another," Bandy said.

The challenges the lock-smithing unit now face are not just duty-related, however. The Department of Defense's sequestration cuts could erode the base's lock-smithing capabilities if they lose Crain and other civilians who have important positions like his, according to Bandy.

"Jack has years of experience that help younger Airmen out," Bandy said. "He amazes me with how much he knows, because he has a lot of different repair techniques that we haven't learned."

Bandy said having someone as knowledgeable as Crain helps everyone out and it might cost the Air Force more money to get rid of civilians like him than to keep him.

"A lot of items we may not be able to repair, he can because he has worked with a wider variety of different makes and models of locks," said Bandy. "We might have to order new pieces of equipment without him, but his ability to repair and modify certain locks we don't have the experience on is helpful."

From Missouri's freezing winters to the Midwest's scorching summers, the 509th CES locksmiths are always on the go, repairing locks and drilling through vaults to keep Whiteman's mission of nuclear deterrence and global strike operations safe, secure and effective, said Bandy.

"With anything that needs to be secure on this base, you'll need a locksmith," Bandy said. "We have the ability to go anywhere to fix anything."