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TCOM Electronics Technicians Keep Company’s Aerostats Flying High

Inside an enormous hangar that once launched World War II Navy blimps, TCOM, L.P. manufactures and assembles airships and the lofty aerostats that are used for air defense systems and surveillance around the world. A key to the Elizabeth City, N.C. operation is an inventory of fine-tuned machines—and the technicians who keep them running.

Bradley Perkins and Rick Anderson are electronics technicians who work in TCOM’s sealer maintenance shop. They keep in top working order the machines that seal the seams of the lighter-than-air aerostats.

Aerostats are unmanned, tethered balloons filled with helium to keep them aloft. Outfitted with radar and communications systems, the aerostats made at TCOM are now a critical part of air defense systems used in Kuwait, Israel, India and Iraq.

“Any interruption in the aerostats’ operation could compromise the mission, ” said TCOM Site Operations Manager Charles Knauss. “Completely flexible, aerostats have no internal structure, so sealing together the laminate material that contains the helium is integral to their success.”

That’s where Perkins and Anderson come in.

Working from TCOM’s sealer maintenance shop, their job is to replace and maintain the head and feet on the industrial-sized heat sealer machines. Using 480 volts of electricity, the hand-sized head and the shoe-sized foot clamp together to heat and seal the seams along the gigantic aerostats that range in size from 17 to 74 meters. That’s a machine you want to have in top shape when you’re constructing a balloon intended for air defense overseas.

“When this machine goes down, production goes down,” explained Anderson. “We need to make sure the machines are maintained properly for this function.”

In addition to maintaining the heat sealer machines, Perkins and Anderson keep a battery of mechanical devices in working order—the inspection equipment, on which workers examine the thin aerostat laminate for flaws; the plotter cutter machines that cut the material according to design; and the blowers used to inflate the deflate the aerostats in testing.

Every 60 days, they run a top-to-bottom inspection of all 34 machines—checking connections, bearings, pins, and cables, in addition to changing all the filters.

“We deal with expensive equipment, and there’s a long lead time to get it replaced,” said Perkins. “One little slip-up can cause havoc.”

Putting it together
As long as he can remember, Perkins has enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together. With a keen interest in electronics, he took as many related courses as he could when he was a student at Gates County High School, including computer language classes and math. After graduation, he enrolled in the two-year computer engineering program at College of the Albemarle (COA). That’s where he learned about TCOM through the college’s co-op program that places students with on-the-job learning experiences.

For Perkins, it was a good fit—and a smart career move. When he graduated with an associate’s degree in 2005, he went to work full-time with TCOM.

“The co-op program gave me the chance to learn more about what TCOM does and really apply what I’d learned in the classroom,” he explained.

Anderson will complete the same COA program this year. After he works the first shift at TCOM, he goes home to hit the books through the college’s distance learning courses, conducted online. His background as an ASE-certified mechanic has helped.

“I started working on cars because I owned a 1988 Ford Escort and needed to keep it up. I’m self-taught,” Anderson said. “And I’ve always been fascinated with computers, wanting to know what’s inside that box and all that goes on.”

Perkins’ and Anderson’s pride in their jobs shows as they go about their work at TCOM. In a spacious manufacturing room next to their shop, material for a 74-meter aerostat is stretched out along the length of the floor. It will take workers up to three months to construct it. Anderson is busy switching out parts on one of the heat sealer machines, while Perkins checks other devices in the room that will be instrumental in the successful completion of the balloon.

“We’re kind of like the behind-the-scenes backbone of the company. You might not notice us when things are running smoothly. But once a machine isn’t functioning or breaks down, we’re the ones that get the call,” said Perkins. “What we do here is important.”

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