SrA. Timothy Neely, 317th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron C-130J Super Hercules crew chief, covers the propeller intake on a C-130 prior to a wash at Dyess AFB Texas, on July 12, 2018. Air Force photo by SrA. Emily Copeland.
The Air Force’s use of predictive analytics and artificial intelligence to forecast when aircraft parts will fail is broadening to include the military’s entire C-130 fleet, followed by C-17s and KC-46s—even before all of Boeing’s new tankers are delivered.
The effort, Conditions-Based Maintenance Plus (CBM+), aims to reshape how the service maintains its aircraft to mirror the commercial airline industry. Air Mobility Command is already using predictive maintenance for the C-5M fleet and many of its KC-135Rs. Similar efforts are in the works for the B-1, E-3, RC-135, OC-135, F-16, and F-35.
It’s so far been an “exciting journey, and we’re starting to see some results,” Brig. Gen. Steven Bleymaier, AMC’s logistics director, said on a July 19 call with reporters.
Instead of reacting to problems, proactively forecasting issues means the service can get ahead of fixes and avoid holding back jets during important deployments because of parts problems.
“The last thing we want to do is go out and send a maintenance repair team across the world to fix an aircraft that’s on a mission,” Bleymaier said.
CBM+ takes a two-pronged approach. Predictive algorithm development uses complex algorithms developed by Air Force Materiel Command to determine patterns in maintenance issues. That effort, which began on C-5s, uses data from sensors onboard the aircraft to show how quickly a part is deteriorating, and to alert maintainers when that part should be swapped out before it fails.
Predictive algorithm development comprises about 20 percent of CBM+. Though it provides information about a platform through “beeps and squeaks” from the maintenance sensors, the Air Force’s short supply of spare parts significantly hampers that effort, according to Maj. Todd Downs, the sustainment innovation branch chief in the mobility aircraft division of AMC’s logistics directorate.
The other piece, Enhanced Reliability-Centered Maintenance, began on KC-135s in April. Under this initiative, the Air Force uses all available historical data on individual aircraft components to determine their ideal life spans, then schedule the best time for a swap. This can be combined with a flight schedule for expected deployments to make the swap as easy as possible.
For KC-135s, the ERCM initiative started at MacDill AFB, Fla., and March ARB, Calif., in April. It moved to RAF Mildenhall, England, and Scott AFB, Ill., in May. Kadena AB, Japan, and JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, were the third round, and work began at Tinker AFB, Okla., earlier this month, Downs said. Another 12 units will begin running this process by October, and it will spread to the RC-135 and OC-135.
AMC is focusing on the parts that, when they fail, cause the longest downtime for a plane. Some examples for the KC-135 are the engine-driven hydraulic pump, the cabin outflow safety valve, and hydraulic systems on the boom itself.
The command is also moving conditions-based maintenance to all variants of the C-130, including Guard and Reserve. On Feb. 1, 2020, aircrews at Dyess AFB, Texas; Rosecrans ANGB, Mo.; NAS JRB Fort Worth, Texas; Peterson AFB, Colo.; Stratton ANGB, N.Y.; and Peoria ANGB, Ill., will start the process. About six bases will stand up the process per month. While all variants will eventually be included, the components will be common across all airframes.
After the C-130 units begin CBM+, AMC will shift its focus to C-17 units, starting at JB McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.; Dover AFB, Del.; and Stewart ANGB, N.Y. The Air Force will then begin testing to bring CBM+ to the brand-new KC-46 fleet. AFMC leaders are still debating which KC-46 components need to be addressed, Downs said.
Moving toward predictive maintenance has been a “major culture change,” Bleymaier said, but it isn’t yet a way of life for the Active Duty Air Force. Many Guardsmen and Reservists already have airline maintenance jobs, where it has long been a reality.
Their feedback is, “What took you so long” Bleymaier said.