WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- It may not be as illustrious as a spot in the Pro Football or Baseball Halls of Fame, but for the Air Force, an induction into the Safety Hall of Fame indicates an unequaled excellence in dedication to maintaining and sustaining the safety of the fleet and the Force.
Dr. Jeffrey Calcaterra, the Structural Materials Evaluation Team Lead in the Systems Support Division, Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, Air Force Research Laboratory, has been selected as the newest inductee into the Air Force Safety Hall of Fame for his significant impacts in aviation safety over the past decade. The rarely conferred award recognizes individuals who have made contributions of enduring and significant impact to Air Force safety and mishap prevention, with enduring significance for the Force of the present and the future.
“I am very excited to receive this award,” said Calcaterra, a Detroit, Michigan native and Georgia Institute of Technology alumnus. “My boss decided to send it in, and I’m shocked it happened. I received a text of my picture on the Hall of Fame Wall at the safety center from a friend with the words, ‘it warms my heart every day to see this.’ I feel honored.”
A career aerospace engineer, Calcaterra has spent the bulk of his time at AFRL, honing his expertise through positions ranging from basic research in metals to leading all Air Force metals processing research initiatives as the Section Chief in the Metals Processing Section of the directorate. In 2007, Calcaterra transitioned onto the Systems Support Branch’s Structural Materials Evaluation Team, driven by a desire to “help engineers make an impact.” Today he leads a team that has prevented hundreds, if not thousands, of aviation mishaps over the past decade.
“I wanted to be an aerospace engineer since I was 13. Movies like ‘Apollo 13’ and ‘Fat Man and Little Boy’—where the engineers were always struggling with something—resonated with me in real life,” said Calcaterra. “In college, I had the thought that investigating plane crashes would be the coolest job possible. There’s the hands-on engineering challenge with a criticality and time deadline component. As a part of the Systems Support Team, I get to investigate plane crashes and make an impact for the Air Force. It’s a great environment to work in.”
Calcaterra leads a team of engineers that investigate materials and process related issues that cause system failures, addressing problems ranging from ejection seat malfunctions to aircraft control stick issues and more. A bulk of their work supports Air Force Safety Investigation Boards and Program Offices, though they have been called upon to assist agencies such as the Army, Coast Guard and even NASA on materials issues.
“Materials and processing has the biggest impact that the acquisition community can make on safety,” said Calcaterra. “Every day is something new, and somebody has an emergency that you need to solve. I get about five to ten consults from the field on a daily basis.”
Though the projects are many, a few stand-out efforts truly demonstrate Calcaterra’s superior expertise and performance. In 2015, he led the on-site and laboratory investigation of an aircraft on-board fire, identifying a loose oxygen system nut as the root cause of the mishap. The findings led to an immediate fleet-wide corrective action, preventing future failures and fires in that and other aircraft maintained by the manufacturer.
A five-minute phone conversation asking about the specifications for a bar and plate led to a decade long effort that discovered an entire industry of manufacturers was improperly substituting material during aircraft design, resulting in major material fatigue issues in the fleet. This led to a new industry standard that controls materials in different ways, preventing countless potential mishaps as a result.
One of the craziest consults, said Calcaterra, resulted from a call from NASA asking, “Can we launch?”
“They had used a different spec of titanium on a probe that was about to launch into space, and they didn’t know if it was going to meet their requirements,” said Calcaterra. “I helped them determine the requirements and devised a test, which showed the material passed and they launched successfully.”
Though Calcaterra has received this accolade alone, he emphasized repeatedly that his success is truly not as an individual, but this is a team recognition.
“Everything we do here is a team effort. Every serious issue we run by other people to make sure we give the Air Force the right answer,” said Calcaterra.
“The Air Force Safety Hall of Fame award encompasses what Dr. Calcaterra has been dedicating his efforts to for over 10 years,” said Mary Ann Phillips, the Materials Integrity Branch Chief, who nominated him for the award. “He is driven to keeping the Air Force fleets and airmen safe—all of us are very proud.”
For Calcaterra, though, the award validates the impact his work has for the Air Force and for safety investigations.
“The best thing is that I can go to an air show, point to things and say that I made an impact. This job is remarkable. I feel pretty confident that there are people out there alive today who would not be if we had not done our job. That’s big,” he said.