Whitaker’s beginning students are learning how to assemble panels and to handle composite materials without damaging them.

He shows a laminate square from scrap materials donated by Bell where students learn how to use the carbide bits, also provided by Bell, to properly drill the holes that typically would be for fasteners in assembly work. The squares have a row of holes—some drilled properly with smooth edges and the layers intact all around the edges, and some improperly with egg-shaped holes or holes where the layers have peeled away from the holes.

In another exercise, students assemble a panel with honeycomb between the Kevlar layer and the composite panel held together by adhesives. To simulate the type of damage that can occur to an aircraft made from composites, Whitaker swings a ball peen hammer against the outer edge, leaving the kind of ding from a hail stone that can lead to severe damage if it were left unattended.

“Water can get into those areas and when the aircraft is in flight, it freezes and expands,” Whitaker said. “That causes cracks and separation.”

The students’ job is to cut away the surface damage, inspect the honeycomb for damage, cut it out and replace it, and then cut a patch and return the panel to its intact condition. “To do so properly, Whitaker explains, they must know which adhesives to use and the technique for keeping dust from accumulating in their samples.

Most students are returning to the classroom from workplaces. While Bell guarantees an interview with every graduate, not all intend to work there, Whitaker says. They take their aerospace composites skills to other industries such as to nearby Pantex, a Department of Energy (DOE) and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) plant where nuclear weapons are assembled and dismantled after they no longer are needed in the weapons arsenal, and some graduates work for Xcel Energy, an electric power company.