John Cooper, 100th Civil Engineer Squadron Lock Shop, and a Ministry of Defence civilian, chisels out part of the door edge, before installing an Assa mortice lock on a conference room door March 14, 2007, in the 95th Reconnaissance Squadron, in Building 707. The lock smiths often have to make minor adjustments to doors and fittings to ensure locks fit properly and are secure. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Brad Smith)
Tech. Sgt. Phillip Young, a locksmith from the 100th Civil Engineer Squadron, hammers a strike plate into a door wall March 14, 2007, at the 95th Reconnaissance Squadron, in building 707. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Brad Smith)
by Karen Abeyasekere
100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
3/22/2007 - RAF MILDENHALL, England -- The other day I picked my first padlock - it's a good thing I wasn't breaking into a building, because the police would have been there before I got half-way through the 20-minute job.
Now, before anyone calls security forces to turn me in, I just want to point out it was under the watchful eyes of Tech. Sgt. Phillip Young and Ministry of Defence employee John Cooper, who operate the 100th Civil Engineer Squadron Lock Shop.
By the way, the padlock I was picking wasn't actually attached to anything at the time.
Responsible for the security of all buildings on base, the locksmiths - tucked away in a small building by the base car wash - make sure nobody gets into any secure locations without a key.
They're also the only people on base who are certified to install, modify and maintain secret classified storage containers.
"The base is on a master system (for building locks) using Assa keys, which work off a code," said Sergeant Young. "We use specialized, RAF Mildenhall-specific locks and keys, meaning no one can go downtown and duplicate a key."
Anyone officially needing a building key must submit a work order, together with the building number and key number, so a key can be cut without the customer having to go to the lock shop.
There are several different security classes of padlock - the one I was trying to open without a key was Class 1 - the most basic. The locksmiths showed me how they sometimes have to open a lock in an emergency, such as if a key has broken in the lock, or if the key is lost and they need to get into the padlocked area, then let me try my hand at it. It certainly wasn't as easy as they made it look, and I had to admit defeat on the Class 2 padlock.
"The locks go up to Class 4 security classification, which consist of a side bar (a system on the side of the barrel)," said Mr. Cooper. "The locks have bottom pins and master pins which drop into a cylinder; they're made exclusively for RAF Mildenhall, so keys can't be cut anywhere else."
While not all facilities on base are fitted with Assa locks, Mr. Cooper said the older locks are being replaced as needed with the new locks, which are base standard.
The locksmiths are in charge of more than 6,000 keys, and they perform maintenance on more than 25 vaults, 350 safes and similar security areas. The two play almost as big a part in base security as security forces members do.
If they're not installing door locks or cipher locks, they're usually repairing broken locks.
Putting a lock on a new door takes about 45 minutes, according to Sergeant Young.
First, they cut two holes right through the door, one for the lock and the other for the handle. Then they fit the Assa lock and key barrel, making sure the lock and handle meet correctly, and that it fits the slot on the other part of the door.
However, sometimes they run into problems.
"Self-help projects can be a real headache for us," said Sergeant Young. "Sometimes there isn't enough cut out of the rebate (the narrow edge of the door), which means we often need to fine tune annoying problems during installation. It might be that doors aren't flush or level, so the locks won't fit properly - we have to modify the door or the locks; basically, whatever it takes to get it to work, including adding extra fittings if necessary."
Whatever modifications are made, however, don't affect the lock mechanism or security. The Assa locks have a sidebar, with additional pins - top pins as well as side pins, which work in conjunction with the key; the key sits at a certain height which works with the pins, the pins drop down, and the key then opens the door.
So the next time you use your key at work, think about all the work that went into getting that lock on your door, and of the security it's giving you - and of the two base locksmiths helping it stay that way.