2014-08-08 By Ed Timperlake and Robbin Laird
We have focused from the outset on the maintainability of the F-35 and the roll out of real world experience in shaping the maintenance regime.
We argued earlier that letting the operators shape the operational path for the F-35 makes a lot of sense; and this clearly goes for the maintainers.
As the first squadron to maintain an F-35B, the VFMA-121 maintainers are clearly key players in shaping the operational reality of the F-35 and its future. The oft bandied about term “concurrency,” which is usually used to criticize the F-35 program actually underscores a strength: the operators – pilots and maintainers – are in a position to shape the roll out and evolution of the F-35 enterprise.
As Secretary Wynne put it with regard to concurrency:
We will always want to feed in the air changes to airplanes one through twenty.
But doing development without deployment guarantees you will not have a new asset out there reshaping capability.
It also guarantees that the impact on operations will be shaped by testers, and not by operators.
In our discussions with both USAF and USMC maintainers, the same attitude and approach comes through: by getting our hands on the airplane we are shaping the maintenance regime.
For example, in a discussion in June 2013 at Eglin AFB with the 58th Crew Chief we had a chance to get a USAF cut at the challenge with shaping the new maintenance regime.
Throughout he emphasized the maintenance of the jet is a work in progress.
As the software evolved for the combat systems, the software for maintaining the aircraft was evolving as well.
The IOC aircraft will represent a core point for stabilizing the intersection of the two software streams to shape an operational squadron and its deployment capabilities.
“We have 12 aircraft currently and are doing the maintenance on these aircraft. These include the early aircraft as well as the production aircraft we are now receiving.”
The original plan was for Lockheed employees to manage the initial maintenance and train the trainers.
But when the aircraft delivery moved to the right, the plan changed and the USAF was doing more of the up front maintenance work
They still had oversight on the maintenance, but as far as the scheduling of the aircraft and the status, serviceability of the aircraft, that all ended up on the Air Force’s hands.
Now, we’ve pretty much transitioned 90 percent Air Force.
We have support from field service engineers here from between Lockheed, BAE and Northrop Grumman.”
The three new block 2 alpha jets had just arrived but until then the maintenance was being performed on 9 aircraft.
With these aircraft, “we have been supporting 6 sorties a day; 4 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon.
Usually we had six aircraft because two are functioning as spares. So out of the nine, I had six aircraft on schedule every day.”
The crew chief underscored that working with a maturing system is a challenge but also exciting for his team as well.
“The computerized fault resolution system is not yet mature but that is an advantage. We have to learn ourselves hands on to troubleshoot the systems and it allows us to give feedback to the engineers as well about the systems.”
He saw the maintenance crew as part of the development process in effect.
When visiting Yuma Marine Corps Air Station in July 2014, we were able to discuss the next evolution of the maintenance regime, namely a squadron maintained by its own organic assets.
VMFA-121 is the first F-35 squadron and the first with organic maintenance.
A squadron with organic maintenance simply means that the Marines are manning the maintenance squadron with inputs from technical representatives, but because it is the first operational squadron obviously the Marines need to prepare for overseas deployment and to prepare to support the aircraft in forward positions.
Notably, the squadron has already deployed for movement to the United Kingdom for the Royal Tattoo and Farnbourgh Air Shows but was stopped at Pax River while DOD made its decisions on the go ahead with F-35 fleet engines, a process that concluded favorably but too late to permit the squadron jets to fly across the Atlantic.
They had to fly back across the United States to Yuma on the day we were visiting the squadron.
And the flight to England was viewed as part of the overall progress to the IOC of the aircraft next Summer.
As part of that progress, the maintainers from the squadron accompanied the jets and were prepared to support the plane fully in operation.
In the work up for RIAT/Farnborough, VMFA-121 conducted the first ever engine change away from home station at Pax River.
Installation went quicker/smoother than was predicted, and helped VMFA-121 move closer towards having a combat/expeditionary IOC deployment capability in 2015.
We had a chance to discuss the progress with a powertrain maintainer on the F-35 working at VMFA-121.
Staff Sargent Jason Lunion has been a maintainer since 1999 and his first squadron CO (for VMFA-223) was Lt. General Davis who is now the Deputy Commandant of Aviation.
He most immediately comes from working on engines with the Harrier but has wide range of experience, as one would expect for members of the first squadron with organic maintenance for the USMC in supporting the F-35.
The F-35 is the first low observable aircraft to be operated by the maritime services, and requires some changes in how the maintainers support the aircraft, and notably at sea.
The discussion with the Staff Sargent highlighted that the low observable qualities of the aircraft created some specific challenges, and one of those, which he mentioned, was working on the panels.
The panels on the aircraft provide easy access for a number of maintenance functions, but as he described it one change is the impact on the T-handles, which open the panels.
“The panel is opened numerous times a day and we are wearing down T-handles that provide access to the panel and wearing down the fasteners themselves.”
He was asked about the general shift from legacy to LO maintenance and highlighted that the Marines have not operated an LO aircraft before so there is a learning curve.
“There is a drastic increase in awareness when you are working around the aircraft.”
A key aspect of the aircraft is the use of computer aided maintenance and sensor-informed systems.
The Staff Sargent focused on how the sensor-enabled aircraft was also a work in progress much has one has seen with new commercial aircraft which rely heavily on sensors to provide data about performance and maintenance demands.
“When a sensor indicates a problem, is it the sensor or is a real problem?”
He also added that “because of all these sensors, and all these little gadgets on the motor that are supposed to eventually take this to a on-condition inspection basis, until their maturity’s reached, we’re going to continue to have a lot of fine tuning to do.”
He noted that compared to the Harrier working on the F-35 engine was much easier.
“With regard to the Harrier, you have to remove the wing and then crane the engine out. That is clearly not very maintainer friendly, but the F-18 is a different case where removal of the engine is straightforward.”
When asked about his overall experience, he emphasized that some aspects were welcome additions, and others were a work in progress.
“We were told it was designed to be maintainer friendly, and obviously, we’re finding as with any platform, you’re going to find certain things that are maintenance friendly, and there’s certain things that are not.
But we haven’t really found anything that’s extremely difficult working on this aircraft.
I think the biggest challenges to date are due to the immaturity of the technical data that we used to fix the plane.”
He highlighted that the lift fan was turning into a good maintenance experience.
“The lift fan isn’t as hard as anybody was originally thinking when we started. The tolerances in the airframe for pulling a motor is so tight in a Harrier that you, at times, have to literally shake the motor free of some of the stuff that’s in the way on the airframe. With the F-35, this is not a problem.”
His major complaint was that the unit wanted to ensure that they were able to get into a position whereby the maintainers could be able to work with the whole aircraft and maintain it as a single entity.
“I think the single biggest difference going from a Harrier community to coming here is not the maturity of the aircraft because that was expected.
It is the lack of technical publications that really are impediments.
We continue to work towards a comprehensive and complete technical pubs library to realize/maximize the efficiencies the F-35 brings.”
In some ways, the conversation with the Staff Sargent recalls the learning process associated with the Osprey.
And in an interview with a senior maintainer in New River in the Summer of 2013, Major Rhobotham, VMM-364 Remain Behind Element (RBE) Officer in Charge (OIC), significant change was in process with regard to Osprey maintenance.
According to Major Rhobotham a culture change accompanying the I-Pad generation pilots was happening with the maintainers as well:
A major change, which I have experienced, but really is not talked about, is the role of the new generation and their ability to process information and combat learning.
The new generation grew up with such an influx of information that they are able to process information in ways that are a challenge for me, and for my parent’s generation are impossible.
And it makes them amazing mechanics.
My Marines downstairs can flip through publications and can resource four or five different sources of information and come up with amazingly creative solutions to problems.
When I grew up, you would go to the library, you’d grab the encyclopedia, you’d get the first cut from the encyclopedia, you’d then grab two or three references, beyond that you’d support your theory, your statement, your thesis, whatever it was.
For this generation, they are very used to opening up a source and saying well, I can’t prove that this information that was published by so-and-so on this website’s true. And they’ll grab something 180 out, cross-reference it and make an assessment, and that is a significant capability for troubleshooting.
We have items that don’t always fail the same way every day. For example, I’m getting an indication in the cockpit of a certain failure, and these new mechanics can go through one publication, and it will indicate that they are to test this wire, or that wire, and if those pass, change the sensor, and then after that, you call an engineer.
And these young men and women are incredibly creative.
They will look at a different publication that was talking about a similar sensor in a different part of the aircraft, it has these three other steps. Why aren’t these three steps in here?
And then, the next thing you know, they have built procedures that we then write into the process.
I attribute it to the way their brains and the way they’re socially trained even from a young age to look at information and not necessarily believe that just because it’s written in a book it’s the end all, be all.
This thinking process is crucial, especially with an airplane that’s complicated as the V-22.
Editor’s Note: We have looked at the rollout of the maintenance system during visits to Eglin AFB and with the 33rd Fighter Wing.
We focused as well in a 2011 dialogue with Lt. Col. Sampsel (since retired) and Secretary Wynne on the challenge of shaping a new approach.
And we have published a book on the F-35 maintenance revolution.
The Sampsel-Wynne discussion focused on the challenge of transition and the cultural shift associated with F-35 global maintenance over time.
The following chart captured the complexity of the transition and the challenges on the way ahead.
The F-35 Maintenance Revolution
And in a 2009 interview with Bob Fiorentini, the then Lockheed Marin VP for Global Strategic Sourcing, the significance of common tools was underscored:
A core element of the approach has been upon designing and building tools for both manufacturing and sustainment. Fiorentini underscored that “we are designing and building dual use tools versus build and then sustainment tools.”
In other words, many of the tools used in the build of the aircraft will be deployed to the filed. This leads to cost containment for the tool building companies who get a much longer run because they are producing for both production and sustainment processes.
This also leads according to Fiorentini “to much earlier maturity for tools used in sustainment than has been the case in legacy programs…..
in the design and production of the F-35 future sustainment has been built in wherever possible.
And design features like the reduction of panels, which need to be removed to do repairs, reduce downtime.
“Many of the components of the airplane which in legacy aircraft required panel removal are now built into the weapons and landing gear bays where no panel disassembly is required for most commonly serviced parts of the aircraft.”
“The maintainers for the F-35 use a ruggedized laptop to do initial systems checks.
In legacy aircraft, very specialized equipment proprietary to the manufacturer has to be used.
And again, the same procedures used in the factory are those used in the field for final test out for flight.
And Fiorentini emphasized that the build to maintain has enhanced significantly the reliability on the flight line. “
We use one data base throughout the design and maintenance process.
This guarantees consistency and will provide important metrics for sustainment.
And the use of the same design tools to design for production and sustainment tooling ensures compatibility throughout.”