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It was a viral moment that could have been written for TV. A politician questioning an Air Force official held up a bag of tiny metal parts for airplanes and demanded to know why it cost taxpayers $90,000. The official had no response, and it looked like a slam dunk. Here’s what those parts were and what was going on.

The politician in question was Florida Congressman Mike Waltz. The Republican sits on the House Armed Services Committee. The Committee was questioning Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall over spending.

The parts he held up were a “bag of bushings.” Bushings are solid metal sleeves that allow parts to rotate. They are technically a type of bearing, though we often think of bearings are “roller bearings” or “ball bearings” which are more complex components that your axles and engine use to spin. But because bushings are a single piece of metal they can fit in a small space, reduce the amount of vibration, and in some cases last a long time.

Dozens of round metal bushings jumbled together.
Metal bushings | Elena Bionysheva-Abramova via iStockPhoto

Waltz went on to decribe said the bushings as, “stamped out by machinists” who only need a high school diploma. And said, “Not anything high tech about this.”

Though bushings just look like metal tubes, this description might be an oversimplification. The bushings Representative Waltz was holding up are used in jet engines. Depending on where they are used, the failure of just one could cause a plane crash. Why might they fail? Because of barely perceptible flaws such as the wrong dimensions or imperfections in the metal. For this reason, manufacturers must follow strict “quality control” procedures. They may have to destroy the majority of the bushings they make in tests, even hiring outside firms to do thorough analysis. The cost of reducing the chances of failure to nearly zero can be very high.

Waltz used a ton of other folksy references. He alluded to the Air Force’s “Ferraris” and its “pickup trucks.” By Ferraris he meant combat aircraft, hand-built to high specifications. By pickup trucks he was referring to the Air Force’s fleet of “commercial derivative” aircraft. These are vehicles slightly modified from commercial versions, which the Air Force uses to transport personnel or cargo. And it was this fleet that Waltz wants to save some money on by using commercial parts when maintaining them.

In his questioning, Representative Waltz was clear that he’s suggesting the Air Force uses parts up to the spec the Federal Aviation Administration requires for commercial aircraft. But when he asked Secretary Kendall why we are wasting money on even more expensive parts from OEMs, the Secretary had no answer.

See Representative Waltz’s questioning in the video below: