Uphill Struggle

Sept. 1, 2009

Air Force maintainers are really up against it. They are struggling to support an aircraft fleet battered by some 18 years of war in two theaters and the nonstop demands of peacetime and homeland security missions. Moreover, the fleet each year sets a new record for average age, given that infusions of new airplanes are too small to offset fleetwide decline.

The maintenance force is working hard, with considerable success, but the stresses show no signs of a letup.

SSgt. Richard Replinger inspects the engine on a C-130H Hercules. (USAF photo by SSgt. Joshua Garcia)

The wrench turners have to work a lot harder to keep the same numbers of aircraft, vehicles, and weapons available for the fight. The implications of an Air Force trend toward a smaller force—with a mix of ancient and brand-new platforms—are still being ferreted out.

Thus far, the mobility and combat fleets have largely avoided any large-scale availability pitfalls, thanks to the hard work of the maintainer force. In short, maintainers are keeping the Air Force’s old and heavily used aircraft fleet viable. How long can it last, and at what cost

“The duck continues to move across the pond fairly smoothly,” said Maj. Gen. Robert H. McMahon, director of logistics on the Air Staff. “What I can’t tell you is how much faster the duck’s feet are going today than they were eight years ago.”

The force has largely adapted from what was a rigid Cold War maintenance structure into one oriented toward expeditionary warfare.

Looking at the Air Force’s own maintenance statistics is instructive. The fleet, across the board, averages 24 years old. The older the fleet gets, the more money it costs to keep it ready for combat.

Air Force fighters cost about $19,400 an hour to operate, according to Air Staff statistics for 2008—a cost that includes mission personnel, unit level fuel consumption, intermediate and depot level repair, and contractor support. Since Fiscal 2003, this number has risen on average 9.8 percent per year.

The bomber fleet—which is 33 years old on average—costs around $52,700 per operational flying hour. This cost per flying hour has gone up around 8.1 percent a year since 2003, and part of the higher overall flying cost is attributable to the size, complexity, and weight of the bombers.

Strategic airlift, tactical airlift, and command and control aircraft costs per flying hour have each gone up by double digits on average since 2003. Strategic airlifters have led the pack, with cost per flying hour growing by 17.2 percent a year on average.

To keep its aircraft ready for war with a sustainable level of effort, the service has initiated an effort to assess the “state and health” of maintenance throughout the Air Force, via a series of surveys at 13 operational bases across the service. This survey led to a full report to the Air Staff, which was still analyzing it this summer.

Teams of maintenance officers and senior enlisted airmen collaborated with analysts to perform a series of two-day visits at installations, preceded by a survey sent to all maintenance personnel at each location.

The service did not identify the specific locations, since the goal of the survey was not to analyze practices at particular installations. “Our intent is … to draw conclusions about the entire health of the maintenance community,” McMahon said.

The Air Force’s maintenance cadre has, however, recently witnessed some organizational tumult.

In 2008, the service announced it planned to meld aircraft maintenance units supporting bomber, fighter, and rescue aircraft into flying squadrons.

Gen. T. Michael Moseley, then Air Force Chief of Staff, signed off on the changes in May 2008. He said the purpose of the reorganization was to enhance the capabilities of the units by tying the maintainers in with the units they support.

The change was designed to give operations group and squadron commanders the authority and responsibility to ensure that the units are ready for combat and allow them to train together more regularly.

By August 2008, however, USAF’s new leadership canceled the plan to realign the maintenance units, with the explanation that maintainers can best sustain and improve their skills when led by maintenance professionals.

Maintainers with the 7th Bomb Wing work on a B-1B during an operational readiness inspection at Dyess AFB, Tex. (USAF photo by SrA. Domonique Simmons)

It is inherently difficult to maintain a heavily used, high-performance fleet, but McMahon said some help is on the way. There will be opportunities to improve maintenance practices with new platforms such as the F-22, F-35, and C-130J.

The C-130J “has newer technology than a 1950s-era E [model],” so the maintenance community should be able to support it differently, he said. “We can utilize [fewer specialty codes] to do so. We will do that with a greater extent with the F-22 and F-35 as well.”

McMahon’s perspective is echoed from the flight line.

Tweaking Things

CMSgt. Martin S. Pokrzywa, an equipment maintenance flight chief with the 135th Maintenance Squadron, Maryland Air National Guard, has deployed three times since 2005 to Southwest Asia with the C-130J. “We took the right people and the right numbers. … Maintenance never took a break,” he said at Martin State Arpt., Md.

A veteran of C-130B and E models, Pokrzywa said maintenance practices in Afghanistan and Iraq were markedly different with the J. “The newer technology and the systems that are built in [and] that diagnose problems help a lot,” he said.

The ground maintenance system is fully networked with memory cards, so “anything that goes on is recorded digitally.” Throughout the Maryland Guard’s deployments, maintainers collected failure data for every imaginable component of the C-130J, Pokrzywa said.

“We tweaked things every way,” he said, to determine what problems were environmental and what were system related. Every time the unit returned home, the technical data would be updated. The benefit for C-130J maintainers, he noted, was simple—more time on the aircraft, less time chasing parts, thanks to better data management.

“We used to have what was called ‘100 percent repair capability,’” Pokrzywa said. “We could tear the engine apart, radars, etc. … We don’t do that with a J model.”

Instead, more time is spent repairing the aircraft itself, and less on fixing parts. USAF has driven this approach to streamline the repair process—to make sure the maintenance community has an expeditionary mindset.

“We need to focus all our training on deploying the folks and being able to repair the aircraft in theater,” Pokrzywa added. Otherwise, “we’re not going to be able to give the aircrews reliable and safe aircraft.”

There are a number of factors at work influencing readiness. In addition to the operations tempo, manpower shortages, and an aging fleet, many units are stressed during “split operations”—where part of a unit deploys and the other stays at home.

TSgt. Eric Peterson replaces KC-135 fan assembly blades just checked by TSgt. Joseph Vigil. (USAF photo by SSgt. Joshua Garcia)

A Logistics War

The problem is especially acute with low-density, high-demand assets, such as certain intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft and special operations systems, but is not limited to LD/HD resources.

“Operations in Afghanistan are a logistics war,” said McMahon. “When you think of ground communication, lack of sea communication, … this puts a greater stress on airlift requirements.” Acute problems with materials, fatigue, and structural issues such as wing boxes are creating new strains on the airlifters.

Preventive maintenance, at home station or in the depot, is one of the areas the Air Force is focusing on to improve as its fleet gets older. In order to keep the deployed logistical tail light, new processes are being tested back at home.

If there has been a tangible maintenance benefit from the grueling operations tempo since 2001, it has been the newfound ability to adapt to challenges of all kinds, regardless of platform.

MSgt. William L. Burdette III, a C-130J crew chief with the Maryland ANG’s 135th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, said his unit’s multiple deployments with the C-130J helped amass a wealth of technical data that helped solidify issues with parts, tooling, and supply chain management.

SrA. Kyle Robinson, a crew chief with the 315th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, checks the exterior of a C-17 for damage. (USAF photo by James M. Bowman)

By the end of 2006, for example, C-130J units had learned to put protective barriers on vulnerable parts of the aircraft, such as antennae, due to heavy operations in and around unimproved airstrips in Afghanistan and other locations.

Schedules for components such as filters and the pneumatic system were more precise.

“Rather than wait for something to fail, you come up with a scheduled maintenance program,” said Burdette. “Those things are all incorporated in the tech data now.”

Even with better technology and preventive maintenance, there are critical tasks that will require skilled maintainers’ attention, regardless of the platform, he said. After the C-130J arrived, mechanics had to adjust what they looked at—rather than every component and subsystem of the aircraft, they focused on other aspects of maintenance.

“They learned to focus on … things like cracks in windows, tire pressure. There’s no diagnostic to check that,” Burdette added.

“If you look at availability across the fleet, it has remained fairly constant,” said the Air Staff’s McMahon. It “isn’t serendipity that allowed that to happen.”

Better parts availability has helped. The service’s Total Not Mission Capable for Supply rate, the percent of aircraft that are not flyable due to parts shortages, has inched downward.

In Fiscal 2001, the total Air Force’s TNMCS rate sat at 12 percent. Since then, the number has steadily gone down, hitting 7.6 percent in Fiscal 2008.

A C-130 undergoes maintenance at Robins AFB, Ga. The Air Force is focusing on improving preventive maintenance procedures fleetwide. (USAF photo by Sue Sapp)

Hard work, parts, and the trickle of new equipment have helped hold readiness rates fairly steady. In Fiscal 2001, the availability rate (excluding aircraft assigned to a depot, or unit possessed but not available for missions) was 63.7 percent.

In the years since, the rate has fluctuated in the 66 percentile range—hitting a peak of 67.9 percent in Fiscal 2007, before dipping to 65.6 in Fiscal 2008.

“That’s a lot of hard work on the flight line and the back shops across the Air Force,” McMahon concluded.